Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B”
Can a white person understand the black experience in America? Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” is a poem about his experience as the only African American male in his class. His assignment is to write a page about whatever comes to his mind as long as it’s true. Hughes, however, has the writer’s block and doubts about what to write. By the end of the poem, the student concludes that “it is true” that the instructor and Hughes are part of each other even though they might not like it at sometimes. In the poem, Langston Hughes uses imagery and alliteration to further explain his experience as a young African American man facing racial inequality in America.
Langston Hughes starts off by using descriptive words and imagery to describes where he lives in Harlem and his experiences at Columbia University. He starts off the poem by describing the assignment and then gives a descriptive image of what is currently going on in his life. He states; “I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem… to this college on the hill above Harlem. I am the only colored student in my class. The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem, through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas” (Lines 6-15).
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Hughes uses imagery to portray a typical day in the student’s life as he tries to make sense of his assignment. He describes his normal routine of walking home every day down the hill to Harlem. However, his diction tells the audience another side of the story, his feeling of displacement. His school is “above” Harlem, outside of where he is used to being and causing him to feel out of place. The fact that he has such a long walk to school suggests that he may be poor, but because he is smart, he can go to a university that most of his neighborhood will never get to experience.
The author compares his two different experiences living in Harlem, among African Americans like him, and going to class among white people, who he has more less in common with. He uses Alliteration in the poem to show similar hobbies between African Americans and white people. “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. I like a pipe for a Christmas present, or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach” (Lines 21-24). “Bessie, bop, or Bach” is a reference to different artist and musical styles. “Bessie and Bop” is a reference to the musical artist, Bessie Smith, and the genre of music Bebop.
Bessie Smith and Bebop were a huge part of African American culture, the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz, which all took place in Harlem during the time Hughes lived there. Bach is a reference to classical music, which is has a stereotype of the listeners of this type of music to be smart rich and upper class. The alliteration created by the repeating “B” sound emphasizes the line making readers pay more attention to it. It creates a similarity between the content of the different musical artist. He is using alliteration to tell the audience “just because I have different skin doesn’t mean I don’t deserve enjoy to life.”
Langston Hughes uses imagery and alliteration to write about what is true as a student going to college from Harlem. Today, this poem can be seen as a historical piece used to educate future generations about our past. Hughes explored his inner thoughts of what it feels like to be the only African American male in his class. Students in this day and age can understand the speaker’s dilemma with racial inequality. He touches upon the African American struggle for equality and concludes that although his skin may be a different color, he is as equal as his classmates and his professor. Hughes specifically targets African American audiences who can relate to the speaker of the poem and sympathize with him.