[Close Reading Rainbow Part 1] “Me – Who?”: National Identity in “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

To start off my return to the blogging world, I will be doing a series of short close readings of poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ll start off this series with one of the greatest American poets of the early twentieth century: Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He was one of the leading writers and artists in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry is extremely lyrical and incredibly poignant in relation to understanding the racial tensions of the first half of the twentieth century; sadly many of these same tensions exist today. Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” was published in 1951 in his collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Before I go into my analysis here is the poem in its entirety for a reference and so that you can experience the message that Hughes spent his career trying to convey to American readers: both black and white, bond and free.

“Theme for English B”

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.
That’s American.
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.

The speaker of Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” wrestles with a crisis of racial identity as he strives to follow the directions given by his instructor: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true” (ll. 2-5). While attempting to answer the quandary of the apparent simplicity letting the truth issue forth out of him and onto the page, the speaker effectively raises awareness to the fact that detecting truth about one’s identity is more complicated than simply going home and writing a page tonight. The speaker shows the complexity of racial identity through addressing both Harlem and New York as separate entities in the piece, through using double negatives, and through blending musical tastes of both whites and blacks. The simple fact about racial identity, according to the speaker is that race is complicated, but regardless of race, all who call themselves Americans should understand that the truest truth is that “we are” (ll. 36).

Hughes’ speaker feels, at least in some degree, at odds with his own identity at the beginning of the page that he writes by mentioning both Harlem and New York as influences in his life. “I’m what / I feel and see and hear,” the speaker explains (ll. 17-18). The reader might be asking, “What does he feel, see, and hear?” The speaker feels, sees, and hears “Harlem” (ll. 18). This can be seen earlier in the poem, with the speaker stating that he is “the only colored student in [his] class” (ll. 10). Hughes sets his speaker apart from the rest of his classmates by making it clear that he is one black student in a sea of white. Just as the speaker is physically different from his classmates, Hughes, through the speaker, consciously separates Harlem from New York in the way that he sets off New York parenthetically. “Hear you, hear me,” the speaker thinks, “we two – you me, talk on this page” (ll. 19). It seems as though he is only addressing Harlem as the main influence in his life. Yet, in the following line, the speaker expresses that “(I hear New York, too.)” (ll. 20). By parenthetically dividing the dark Harlem from the light New York, Hughes hints at the truth that identification is complicated, even when someone like the speaker is being integrated into a predominantly white class.

The difficulty of truly self-identifying is furthered as the speaker describes his interests and hobbies, many of which coincide with and conflict with interests of the whites. Hearkening to Zora Neal Hurston’s “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” the speaker becomes candid with his interests: “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (ll. 21-22). Just as Hurston suggested when she says that “As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions [in blacks], is ruled out,” the speaker wants the reader to know that even though he is black, he still has the same emotions as every other human being on the planet and should be treated as such. The complication comes in when the speaker mentions that he wants records for Christmas, namely: “Bessie, bop, or Bach” (ll. 24). Bessie refers to “the Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith, and bop is a type of popular jazz music at the time. Both of these types of music were typical for the average black person of the time, yet with the inclusion of Bach at the end of this list, there is a tension created. Not only is Bach not a jazz or blues musician, he is a white, European Baroque composer. By including Bach with Bessie Smith and bop, the speaker exhibits the struggle of pinning down an identity, especially when it is culturally imposed upon him. He enjoys jazz and the blues, which tended to be more typically black music during the time, yet he loves listening to Bach which is music that was usually reserved for more privileged white individuals. This cultural conflict in the speaker’s own self-identification causes an interesting tension that is alleviated in the poem.

This tension begins to be calmed as the speaker uses a double negative to justify his own identity to the reader. “I guess being colored,” the speaker admits, “doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (ll. 25-26). The speaker exhibits uncertainty about his own identity in the use of the double negative “doesn’t not” which causes the reader to double-take to figure out what it means when someone “doesn’t not” like something. If the double negative is omitted, the reader could read this as “I guess being colored makes,” or even gives him the liberty to “like the same thing other folks like who are other races.”

The speaker is able to lift the tension by answering the question he poses at the beginning of the poem regarding the truth about racial identity: who is the me when he asks the question, “Me – Who?” (ll. 20). The speaker reaches the grey area of being black and liking both black and white things through referring to himself and the instructor as both “Americans.” He says to his instructor, “You are white – / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (ll. 31-33). He continues stating that “Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you” (ll. 34-35). The truth that Hughes, through the speaker, discovers is that racial identification is a difficult endeavor when cultural norms and expectations are heaped upon individuals’ backs. He exclaims that although blacks and whites have their similarities and differences, “we are,” and “that’s true!” (ll. 36). Although the question of “Me – Who?” is a difficult one to grapple with, Hughes urges his readers to retract the accusatory and discriminatory pointer digits with shouts of “You, you, you!” and instead recognize the “We-ness” and oneness that should prevail in the nation. “That’s” what Hughes suggests as being truly “American.”

Just like Hughes is suggesting here, an American voice is hard to pin down. Since America is home to so many people, no one group of people can claim the title of American. Hopefully we can all recognize the voices of Americans of all races, religious affiliation, national origin and so forth.

Also, if you want me to do a close reading of any poem, novel, short story, or play comment below! Thanks, and see you on Saturday.

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“It is the Same” – The Sameness of Change in Shelley’s “Mutability”

BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
                                         I.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
    How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:—
                                         II.
Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings
    Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
    One mood or modulation like the last.
                                        III.
We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
                                       IV.
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mutability”, the speaker explores the tension that is experienced as a result of change; this change is seen in nature in the first four lines, music in the next four lines, emotion in the following four lines, and finally the speaker resolves the conflict in the concluding quatrain by expressing that “It is the same” (ll. 13). Although this seems to be a strange conclusion to come to considering the contrasting and oftentimes combating conundrums within the quatrains, it is in fact the only fitting final thought that can ultimately untie the knot and alleviate the pressure that is contained within each line. Through creating tension with contrasting imagery within the same lines, Shelley adeptly accentuates the truth that change, whether it be drastic or subtle, is a part of our existence as humans that must be reconciled with.

As an introduction into the tension surrounding change, the speaker utilizes the image of a cloud covering the moon as a way to show the mutability inherent in nature. The opening line expresses the idea that we are “as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (ll. 1). This picture has within it subtle tension with the use of the verb veil. The clouds are in motion, but the speed of this motion is slow, and uncertain. It isn’t until the following line that the speed of the motion is revealed to the reader. The tension increases with the addition of descriptors like how the clouds speed “restlessly” (ll. 2). The clouds aren’t just slowly veiling the moon; they are rapidly shrouding it. This creates a feeling of encroaching darkness and gives the reader a sensation of claustrophobia. The light created by the moon is being cloaked by the incoming cloud cover.

Although there is definite dissonance in the movement of the clouds across the moon, the speaker deepens this dissonance through contrasting light and dark. Normally, when clouds cover the moon the light is squelched behind a veil. This is not so in this case. The light of the moon “gleam[s], and quiver[s]” (ll. 2). The light is still present, but it quivers with the coming of the clouds. Tension rises in the following line as the clouds “[streak] the darkness radiantly!” (ll. 3). The juxtaposition of the streaking of darkness radiantly propels the pressure created by the contradicting wording until the tension is finally released in the last line of the quatrain: “yet soon / Night closes round, and they are lost forever” (ll. 3-4). The contrast of light and dark and the way in which the light, oftentimes white, clouds act as an agent of streaking the darkness creates and exhibits the tension that comes with changes in nature visually.

The changes that occur in the physical world, as addressed in the first quatrain, are heightened as the speaker continues their exploration of mutability in the realm of music and sound. In the first quatrain, the reader receives a visual representation of dissonance; the second quatrain examines auditory mutability. The speaker tells of “forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast” (ll. 5-6). The tension in the first two lines of the quatrain is heard through the words “forgotten,” “dissonant,” “various,” and “varying.” These sounds were once audible yet forgotten. The audio-memory of the lyre and the music that was once played thereon is fading further into memory. This image elicits a tone of sad longing for a half-remembered tonal memory that, just like the clouds covering the moon, will soon be “lost forever” (ll. 4). Rather than using contradicting phrasing like that of the first quatrain, the speaker builds upon the tension through compounding the melancholic mood by describing the “various response[s]” of the lyre as possessing a “frail frame” that is constantly changing with no “mood or modulation [being] like the last” (ll. 6-8). The tension isn’t totally resolved with the final line of the quatrain, for it is made more manifest through the motion of the mood and modulation, which perpetuates the pressure presented in the first two quatrains of the poem.

The perpetuation of pressure is proclaimed in the opening two lines of the third quatrain, as it is in the first quatrain, through creating cacophony in each individual action in the line. The speaker suggests that “We rest,” connoting that rest is a natural human experience. The complication surfaces immediately following the dash: “– A dream has power to poison sleep” (ll. 9). Although sleep is something that we all do, there is a potentially dangerous element of slumber that has the power to poison. Likewise, in the following line, the image of sleep is juxtaposed with the initial “We rise.” This rising, which usually holds within it a denotation of rebirth and redemption, is contrasted later in the line following the dash with, “– One wandering thought pollutes the day” (ll. 10). As compared to the previous two quatrains, the speaker condenses the tension like the spikes seen in that of a shrill noise captured in a microphone. This tension, although very much present in this quatrain, is short and more representative of the “varying blast[s]” described in the second quatrain (ll. 6).

The rest of the quatrain, which continues exploring dissonance in emotions, shortens the tension to an almost syllabic sensation, thus making for an even quicker and sharper conflict-resolution than the previous two lines. Instead of dividing the dissonance between one half of the line and the other, the tension is evident between neighboring words. “We feel,” the speaker states, “conceive or reason” (ll. 11). Each of these words are ways in which humans receive and perceive sensations. Although these words are used to describe sensations, each word is vastly different than the other. “Feel” connotes a response to physical sensations, “conceive” holds reference to a response to visual or audio sensations, and “reason” sides closer to the metaphysical response to sensations. Within the three verbs provided by the speaker, there is a lexical and connotational chasm that is concocted in the remainder of this line as well as the line following.

This dissonant divide in diction drives the tension further as the discord is directed and focused more fully in the final three words of the line: “laugh or weep” (ll. 11). These two basic human emotive actions are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, yet they are pressed together tightly like the positive sides of two magnets. These magnetic forces of expression, when pushed together literally or metaphorically, cover the chasm constructed in the beginning of the line with a taut rope that eventually allows the reader to cross the deep without the fear of falling to one side of the other. Though not entirely concluded, the speaker admonishes the reader to “embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away,” suggesting that the reader has the ability to choose whether they will embrace the mutability of physical nature and human nature, or to cast it away (ll. 12).

Regardless of what the reader will do after being shown the sheer shakiness surrounding the unstable and mutable nature of all things, the speaker provides the reader with comfort knowing that “It is the same!” (ll. 13). The speaker exclaims that “be it joy or sorrow, / The path of its departure still is free,” suggesting that though pressure is presented in the poem, as well as in the lives of the individual readers, the capability to resolve the tension is ultimately left in the hands of the reader. They are free to view the tension however they would like to. They can see it as sorrow or joy, and they can react to it by laughing or weeping. Either way, it is the same! The way in which the conflict is resolved depends solely on how each individual reader chooses to alleviate it.

To further complicate the constant stream of cacophony, the speaker concludes by claiming that the only constant in life, whether that’s physical life (as is evident in the example of the moon and the lyre in the first and second quatrains) or metaphysical life (evidenced by the emotional and existential elements evoked in the third and fourth quatrains), is mutability itself. The speaker simply concedes that “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow,” hearkening back to the notion of “no second motion bring[ing] / One mood or modulation like the last” in the second quatrain (ll. 15, 8). No day in the past, present, or future can ever be exactly the same ever. Clouds will always cover moons, the music of long-forgotten lyres will always fade into the fog of memory, and human emotions will fluctuate as frequently as syllables succumb to succeeding syllables in a poem.

The speaker releases the pressure that has thus far been congregating in the previous fifteen lines of the poem by reiterating that the only constant character in the conundrum of choices surrounding tension is mutability itself. As the speaker states, and as Shelley strives to suggest through his utilization of contrasting imagery within selfsame stanzas and lines throughout the poem, “Naught may endure but Mutability” (ll. 16). The capitalization of the word “Mutability” gives the idea and the action pertaining to the word an almost deity-like demeanor. By ending the poem with this God-like image, the necessity for accepting the changeable nature of things generally becomes more of a charge from on high than a challenge negatively charged with the impossibility of completion. Nothing can or will ever remain the same. Nature is in constant flux. The strings of a lyre will oftentimes be discordant and out of tune. Human emotions will forever, frequently find themselves frazzled in the fray of feelings. Yet, it is through understanding the need for tension in existence that the reader is able to truly come to terms with the constant creation and resolution of tension in the poem and in their own lives.