The One who Heard Harlem
Very few writers have the extraordinary ability to inspire millions of people like Langston Hughes did, because of his impact on the Harlem Renaissance, he is easily one of the most important writers in history. Hughes was a versatile writer who wrote everything from poems and short stories to newspaper columns and plays. His critically-acclaimed poems such as “Harlem [Dream Deferred]” and “Theme for English B” gave many African-Americans pride and inspiration during the difficult time of segregation. While reflecting the society of the 1950s, “Theme for English B” also reflects Hughes’s own life through its setting, imagery, and theme.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He moved between many different cities, but ended up in Cleveland, Ohio when he was a high schooler. He began to write poetry and was elected as the class poet of his school. Which goes to show that he had a lot of talent and potential at a very early age (Ilieva and Lennox). He looked up to poets such as Lawrence Dunbar and Claude McKay, who influenced his work. Briefly after graduation, Hughes wrote the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which was well-received and published in The Crisis, which according to onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu, is the “official publication of the NAACP.” He later met many significant poets such as Dr. Alain Locke and Vachel Lindsay, who both liked his work. Hughes gained major traction after Locke published some of his poems, and Lindsay read some during a public reading. He then went to Lincoln University, and while he was there he published two poetry collections which kickstarted his career. Hughes shortly became a major part of the Harlem Renaissance because of his unique writing style which integrated elements of Jazz, Blues, spirituals, and folkways into his poems (Ilieva and Lennox). After he graduated, he moved to Harlem and also did a reading tour in the South. Afterwards, he travelled around the world to study race relations and spent a year in the Soviet Union, taking an interest in Communism (Ilieva and Lennox). Upon returning to the U.S., he wrote several plays in Broadway, Los Angeles, and Chicago. When World War II broke out, he urged African Americans to support the U.S., and he urged the government to treat everyone equally (Ilieva and Lennox). During the war, he wrote a couple of poem collections that attacked segregation (Ilieva and Lennox). Hughes also wrote newspaper columns during this time. In the Chicago Defender, he wrote and published short stories about the character “Jesse B. Semple”. According to The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, his stories “present poignant analyses of issues seen from the average Harlem resident’s point of view in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.” After the war, the Harlem Renaissance was fading away, and the African American communities of the North were in a state of despair, this motivated Hughes to write “Montage of a Dream Deferred” which is considered to be some of his greatest work (Ilieva and Lennox). In 1953, Hughes testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In his testimony he denied being a Communist, a reason why many radical political groups began to reject him (Ilieva and Lennox) In 1960, Hughes was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. (Ilieva and Lennox) According to “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” “Hughes was the first African American literary figure to gain widespread critical and popular acclaim.”
In the year of 1967, Hughes passed away from prostate cancer, although his work will continue to live on. His poetry still remains as relevant today as it did in the 30s-50s. His poems, stories, and plays moved millions upon millions of people and continue to do so. The fact that we are still reading and analyzing his work 60 years later proves this.
Now onto my interpretation of one of his most famous poems “Theme for English B”. “Theme for English B” reflects Hughes’s life through its setting, imagery, and theme, along with the society of 1951.
First 15 lines: In the first 15 lines of the poem, Hughes conveys how difficult his life is. It begins with his instructor saying, “Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you- Then, it will be true.” (lines 1-4). Hughes takes some offense to this saying, “I wonder if it’s that simple,” (line 5) in a sort of snarky tone. To show how hard his daily life is, he points out how he is colored and the only colored person in his class. He uses a descriptive narration style and imagery to show his specific route, the places he goes by to get to his apartment, and to describe the setting, Harlem Branch Y, otherwise known as Hughes’s apartment. According to aaregistry.org, Harlem Branch Y or YMCA was a segregated recreational and cultural center where some political groups met. Despite housing many important groups which met there, it wasn’t necessarily a high-end place. Hughes was conveying he isn’t has well off as his white professor, showing how his life isn’t that simple with his lower-end living.
Second half of the poem: He shows that he relates to the common people of Harlem and New York and represents them through the paper, “Harlem, I hear you…you, me, talk on this page.” (lines 18-19) Being the most prominent leader of the Harlem Renaissance, this is without a doubt. He also shows that there’s no real difference between him and his instructor, despite skin color. He lists off basic human things that he and literally everyone in the world enjoys, such as eating, sleeping, reading, being in love, to support the point that African-Americans aren’t different from other races. He also uses imagery to list other specific things that he enjoys that many other people do (smoking, Bach, working, etc.). Saying that although it’s a stereotype that he wouldn’t like certain things because of his race, he likes them still. This is perhaps why he mentions Bach, as his classical music is viewed as sophisticated, with the stereotype being that African Americans such as himself wouldn’t like classical music. He exclaims in a snarky tone once again, “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like the same things other folks like who are other races.” (lines 25-26). He says it like this to convey that it should be obvious, yet he still has to point it out. This quote is also most likely mocking segregation. Next, although the paper is white, he’s saying it will not be in order to truly reflect his skin color and personality. He proceeds to explain that they are truly not different from each other. He explains that although there is a difference in skin color, they are still a part of each other with the quote, “You are white-yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s American.” (lines 31-33) This line is also most likely making a point against segregation. This is reinforced with the “That’s American” part. The phrase is conveying that that’s the true spirit and freedom of what this country should stand for.
The overall theme and how the poem reinforces it: The theme and message of the poem is anti-segregation, despite the African-Americans being separated from the whites, the poem repeatedly conveys in the second half that there is basically no difference between them. The poem is also perhaps taking a jab at American society, meaning that segregation is truly not American and that this country truly still isn’t free.
In conclusion, I interpret the poem to be out Hughes’s own life, and making points against segregation. Showing that although he lives in a poorer apartment, and that he is of a different race, he is in reality no different from his professor and people of other races. He shares the same interests and states that they are a part of each other, and also united. All while representing New York City during the difficult time of a divided America in the 1950s.