“Theme for English B” was published the American poet Langston Hughes in 1951, toward the end of Hughes’s career. The poem is a dramaticwritten in the voice of a twenty-two-year-old black college student at Columbia University in New York City. His professor gives an apparently simple assignment: to write one page that is “true” to himself. But for the speaker, this assignment raises complicated questions about race, identity, and belonging. As he puzzles through these difficult questions, the speaker arrives at a powerful argument against American racism: white people and black people are not (and should not be) separate or distinct. Instead, they are “part” of each other.
The instructor said, ...
... will be true.
I wonder if ...
... in my class.
The steps from ...
... write this page:
It’s not easy ...
... York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like ...
... are other races.
So will my ...
... of you, instructor.
You are white— ...
... That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you ...
... are, that’s true!
As I learn ...
... for English B.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
"Theme for English B" Read Aloud — The playwright Jermaine Ross reads "Theme for English B" aloud.
Hughes's Life Story — A detailed biography of Langston Hughes from the Poetry Foundation.
Poetry and the Civil Rights Movement — A collection of poems and resources from the Poetry Foundation focused on the poetry of the Civil Rights Movement.
An Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance — A detailed introduction to the African American literary movement, with links to important poems and poets.
Early Black Students at Columbia University — An article by Paulina Fein on the way tha first black students to attend Columbia University were treated.
1The instructor said,
2 Go home and write
3 a page tonight.
4 And let that page come out of you—
5 Then, it will be true.
6I wonder if it’s that simple?
7I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
8I went to school there, then Durham, then here
9to this college on the hill above Harlem.
10I am the only colored student in my class.
11The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
12through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
13Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
14the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
15up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
16It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
17at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
18I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
19hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
20(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
21Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
22I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
23I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
24or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
25I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
26the same things other folks like who are other races.
27So will my page be colored that I write?
28Being me, it will not be white.
29But it will be
30a part of you, instructor.
31You are white—
32yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
34Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
35Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
36But we are, that’s true!
37As I learn from you,
38I guess you learn from me—
39although you’re older—and white—
40and somewhat more free.
41This is my page for English B.