[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.