Theme for English B is one of Hughes’s most loved poems that documents the reflections of “the only coloured student” in a class. The teacher sets the students a page-long writing assignment with the caveat that the response must “be true.” Such an assignment causes the speaker to meditate on his own identity which he sees as wildly different from his peers and teacher because of his race and background. However, the speaker soon finds similarities between himself and his peers while realising that through their differences, he and his teacher can learn from one another.
We have chosen English B as our ‘Poem of the Week’ because it beautifully encapsulates the idea that the classroom is the perfect place to start asking questions about who you are, who you want to become and where you belong in the world. This message deeply chimes with the aims of our mentoring approach at ITG, where we hope to inspire students to foster critical thinking and an inquisitive nature. What’s more, Hughes’ poem has an uncharacteristically optimistic tone as it suggests that education holds great unifying potential, allowing students to connect through their shared desire to learn and understand life.
Read the full poem below:
Theme for English B by Langston Hughes.
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
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,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
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.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.