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.
The teacher tells the speaker to go home and write a page tonight; this page should come from himself and be true. The speaker wonders if it is that simple. He begins by writing that he is twenty-two, "colored," and born and schooled in Winston-Salem, Durham, and at college in Harlem. He writes that he is the only "colored" student in his class. He walks down a hill into Harlem, crossing streets before arriving at the Harlem branch of the Y. He takes the elevator up to his room, which is where he is writing this page.
The speaker writes that at his young age, it is hard to know what is true for "you or me." He believes that the truth is what he hears, feels and sees in Harlem – "hear you, hear me – we two – you, me, talk on this page." He hears New York. He likes to eat, drink, sleep, be in love, work, read, learn, and "understand life." He likes receiving pipes and records (Bessie Smith, Bach or bop) as Christmas presents. Just because he is "colored" does not mean he does not like the same things that people of other races like. He wonders if his page will be "colored" because it is his and he is not white.
The speaker writes that his page will be a part of his white instructor and a part of himself, since he is a part of the instructor – "That's American." Sometimes the instructor does not want to be a part of the speaker and sometimes he does not want to be a part of the instructor, but they are a part of one another, and that is the truth. They learn from each other, even though the instructor is older, white, and "somewhat more free."
He concludes, "This is my page for English B."
“Theme for English B” is without a doubt one of Langston Hughes’s most famous, beloved, and anthologized poems. He wrote it in 1951, the evening of his career, and it addresses one of his most ubiquitous themes – the American Dream. Thematically, "Theme for English B" resembles “American Heartbreak” and “Let America Be America Again.” The poem is written in free verse and lacks a systematic form or meter; its language is simple and casual, and it flows in a stream-of-consciousness style.
The narrative centers on a young student whose instructor has asked him to write a page about himself with the caveat that the page ought to be “true.” The speaker reflects on himself, noting that he is twenty-two years old, "colored," and born in Winston-Salem, N.C. He lists the schools he has gone to and explains that he is currently a student in New York (he probably attends Columbia University or City College of New York). As he walks home, he realizes that he is the only "colored" student in his class. This was a common occurrence during the Jim Crow era, because African Americans had more difficulty gaining entrance into elite schools than their white peers.
On his page, the speaker begins by expressing the his belief that it is hard to know what is true at such a young age. He identifies himself with Harlem, evoking the sounds and sights of the city, claiming to hear Harlem, and, in fact - all of New York. While he feels like an anomaly at school, he fits in within Harlem, which is where he is most content. He lists some of the commonplace but meaningful things he likes to do – eat, sleep, “understand life,” listen to music – and points out that being "colored" does preclude him from liking the same things that white people like.
The speaker's musings become more philosophical as he wonders, “So will my page be colored that I write?” He knows that his perspective is not the same as his white instructor's, but observes that he and his instructor are linked, whether they like it or not - through his writing and in the fact that they are both Americans. He recognizes that they can both learn from each other even though the instructor has the superficial advantages of being older, white, and “more free.”
Through this poem, Langston Hughes asserts that there are multiple types of Americans, and there is no singular defining "American" experience. Black, white, young, old, oppressed, free – all can strive for a piece of the American Dream. This poem is thus much more optimistic than some of Hughes's other writings on this subject; however, it also is a bit more ambiguous than it initially might appear. Critic Tanfer Emin Tunc writes that there are “other aspects of [the speaker’s] life that can only be inferred."
Tunc points out that the speaker writes about attending different schools in North Carolina before moving to New York, a pattern that traces the Great Migration of African Americans from their homes in the South to urban centers in the North like New York and Chicago. The lack of more specific facts makes the speaker’s experiences more universal, and his claim that he and his teacher are a part of each other “simultaneously affirms a common experience with white America while also resisting the impulse to justify his life to that culture and reshape himself in that image.” Overall, the young speaker is trying to figure himself out, as well as grasp the holistic identity of his multifaceted and complicated country.