Exploring Identity Conflicts in Langston Hughes’ Poem
In this essay we will analyze Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B.” This poem was published in 1951 and forms part of Hughes’ poetry book Montage of a Dream Deferred. Most of Hughes’ poetry focuses on African-American people, their lives, their struggles, their fight for justice, and their culture. In this particular poem, the speaker is an African-American student in a prestigious university. The poem is a response from the student to his English professor’s assignment. Hughes uses rhyme, figurative speech, and dichotomy throughout his poetry to illustrate a theme of identity conflict that originates from racism and unequal opportunities towards African-Americans.
Langston Hughes was an acclaimed African-American poet born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. During his early school years, Hughes enjoyed writing. He was elected class poet in the eighth grade. Hughes’ parents were divorced. His mother remarried and his father moved to Mexico. After graduating high-school, Hughes spent a summer with his father down in Mexico. In 1921, Hughes was ready to continue his education. He enrolled at Columbia University in New York sponsored by his father. It is remarkable that Hughes, a “colored” (Hughes) student, was accepted to this private Ivy league school in upper Manhattan. The experience of attending this institution during the Jim Crow laws era is without a doubt Hughes’ inspiration for writing “Theme for English B.” While Hughes was attending to his classes, few blocks away the Harlem Renaissance began to emerge. This intellectual and artistic movement known as the “New Negro Movement” was a big influence in Hughes’ life and writing. After attending university for one year, Hughes decided to drop out. This decision affected the relationship with his father. However, for Hughes this was minor since the Harlem Renaissance had given him a new voice and sense of pride towards his identity and culture. Hughes then decided to travel to several countries in Europe and Africa. Upon his return to the U.S., Hughes finished his college education and began making a living from his writing. His poetry was often criticized as too simple. However, like the scholar Karl Henzy suggests, “Hughes’s poetry is simple but not simplistic” (Henzy 915). With this style of writing Hughes captured the attention and hearts of the people he was targeting. Because of his heritage and culture, Hughes decided to write poems aimed towards the average African-American folk, not the educated white counterpart (Henzy 927).
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Hughes uses rhymes in a free verse poem to illustrate the theme of identity conflict and subordination. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker says, quoting his professor, “Go home and write / a page tonight” (Hughes 2-3). In these two lines, the author uses rhyme. The use of rhyme is important because of its scarcity in the poem. Therefore, every time rhyme is used the narrator is making a statement. What the author may be implying with these rhymes is that his professor is old school. As the scholar Daniel Morris from Purdue University suggests, the professor may be expecting from his pupils a “regularization of speech rhythms into the prosodic formation that is meant, as in Shakespearean verse drama” (Morris 24-25). However, the speaker considers rhyme as old fashion and discards it jumping into a free verse structure with jazz and blues tones. This rebellious action is used by the speaker to illustrate that he understands where he comes from, and he is not embarrassed of his background. This defiance, however, comes to a stop at the end of the poem when the author uses rhyme again for the second and last time. The speaker says, “Nor do I often want to be a part of you / But we are, that’s true! (35-36). The use of rhyme here illustrates the student’s identity conflict. The student doesn’t know if he wants to blend in or be ungovernable by the white authority, and this is where his conflict is. The narrator uses rhyme to illustrate that the African-American student is rethinking his relationship with his white professor. In the end, the speaker comes to an agreement with the professor using his own rhyme. This demonstrates that the student is willing to put his differences on the side and work with the authority rather than against it.
The narrator uses figurative speech throughout the narrative to support the theme of identity conflict and racial barriers. In this poem, Hughes uses different words and phrases to deliver meaningful ideas. When the speaker says, “this college on the hill above Harlem” (9), the word hill represents a bigger idea. The speaker uses this hill as a metaphor of something that is elevated. The speaker also says that Harlem is situated below the university. This can represent the idea that the white people attending the university feel superior to the African-American people living in Harlem. This feeling of inferiority is what gives the speaker the strength to fight against discrimination. Another instance where the speaker uses figurative language is in “I come to the Y, / the Harlem Branch Y” (13-14). The Y represents more than a description of the street. When approaching a Y on the road, a moment of decision arises. Therefore, the “Y” is a metaphor that illustrates decision making. Perhaps, the speaker is questioning himself about the choices he is making every day. Trying to blend into an Ivy league college, or embracing his African-American heritage. This is later reinforced when the speaker says, “I’m what / I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you” (17-18). The speaker uses this synecdoche to illustrate Harlem’s strong influence on him. The student is trying to fit in with the white folk. However, when he is not at school, he is living and breathing Harlem. As Morris says, “experiences are inflected by their subject position” (Morris 25). The effect that Harlem has on the speaker is reflected on the free verse form that resembles jazz and blues music from the artists emerging during that period. At the same time, the Harlem Renaissance inspires the student to “challenge the teacher’s assumptions” (Morris 27). The speaker finds a sense of pride and acceptance of himself in Harlem that he cannot find in the university. The student feels enabled to stand up for his believes, gaining confidence in himself.
The use of dichotomy in this poem illustrates the division of two opposing races, and its effect on the speaker’s identity. An example of this dichotomy is the relationship between the African-American student and his white professor. The speaker lays the foundation of age and race difference in: “I am twenty-two, colored” (7). With this statement the student is acknowledging the fact that he is younger, from a different race, and naïve. He is also recognizing that his professor is older, white, and probably wiser. The speaker uses a playful tone around this line to avoid sounding pessimistic. Nevertheless, this line is an emphasis on how different the student and the professor are from each other. Another time the narrator uses dichotomy is in: “I like a pipe for a Christmas present” (23). Pipes are usually associated with white collar, wealthy professionals, meanwhile the lower-class smokes cigarettes. This illustrates two contrasting classes and races.
The pipe, however, represents a bigger idea. The student says he desires a pipe, just as he desires respect and equal treatment. The young African-American pupil is letting his older professor know he aspires for wealth and recognition one day too, regardless of the color of his skin. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker seeks to end this dichotomy and come to an understanding. This is shown when the persona says: “part of you instructor. / You are white- / yet a part of me, as I am part of you. / That’s American” (30-33). The author takes and interesting turn with these lines. He is acknowledging the differences between himself and the white professor. But he is also stating that they both belong to the same country, and this unifies them. The scholar Kate Baldwin from the University of Notre Dame, suggests that throughout his poetry Hughes “arises out of an awareness of an irresolvable twoness, a sense of being both American and black” (Baldwin p.798). This strong duality inspires the speaker to confront the professor and his own identity conflicts. The African-American voice inside the student’s head is loud and strong. The speaker decides to embrace this voice, instead of ignoring it. At the same time, the student finds common ground with the instructor, as they are both American.
“Theme for English B” is a captivating poem that narrates the journey of a young African-American student. Hughes writes a light piece capable of delivering a strong message. The author uses literary elements to illustrate this journey about self-discovery. The speaker uses rhyme to show rebellion, but also to show willingness to comply with the authority. The use of figurative speech like metaphors, supports and expresses feelings of inferiority. At the same, time the figurative language enlightens a path of self-appreciation. Finally, the author uses dichotomy to show two opposing cultures and races that can peacefully come together with the realization that they can both “learn” (37) from each other.