America in Black and White

Langston Hughes was an important and defining figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s up to the 1930s, a decade of great activity in the African-American arts scene. Hughes was known for the rhythm, jazz and blues, of his poetry. The theme of his poetry is mostly on the life experiences of the African-American. In his Theme for English B, Hughes expresses the reality in the disparity – of being Black among Whites. In the first stanza, the professor’s assignment was specific and defined which was to write a page about oneself. It was a deviation from the usual rigid English lessons, like classical poems.
Writing about oneself was more loose and relaxed. Hughes used iambic quatrain to taunt the rigidity of the instruction. Hughes made it known from the beginning that students and professors were different. The student thought the assignment over and wondered if it was easy writing about oneself. Hughes used the free-verse style on the rest of the poem to contrast the earlier quatrain. Alliteration and Assonance in Line 7, “I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem” had the jazz sounds of Harlem. Here, Hughes bared that the student was Black and therefore the professor was White.
When he combined two vowel sounds in Line 10, “I am the only colored student in my class” Hughes indicated how strongly the student felt about being Black. Hughes used metaphors to denote Black with Harlem, 8th Avenue, 7th Street and Harlem Branch Y, places where there was a heavy African-American population. There was a noticeable change in the order of the from Lines 6, 7, 8 and 10, such as, “I wonder… / I am twenty-two … / I went to school there … / I am the only …” to Lines 12-14 “… then I cross …/ … and I come … / … where I come … /. ” The used to start off the lines, they now end off the lines.

Such reversal was symbolical of the place the Black took in society. The symbolism of coming from African-American places going upwards to the school on the hill and taking the elevator to his room at the Y told of the student’s efforts to reach the level of the Whites. It must be recalled in Line 6 that the student had doubts “I wonder if it’s that simple? ” referring to the assignment. Now at Line 16, he was sure that “It is not easy to know what is true for you or me. ” Hughes at this point now came with the “you” together with the “me.
” With “I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:” “hear you, hear me – we two – you me, talk on this page” (Lines18-19) the student was not just writing about himself but of the whole African-American people. The sound of the assonance was strong like the clamor for equality. In Lines 21-26, the student cried out that he, in many ways, was like a white man with the same wants and aspirations in life. Hughes’ metaphors for gifts like “pipe” to mean growing old, “Bessie” for Blues, “Bop” for Jazz, and “Bach” for the classical and Baroque music.
The student wrote that the African-American also wanted the things the White man enjoyed. Hughes subtly presented the issue of racism by completely leaving out the assonance, instead, the student was introspective when he asked “So will my page be colored that I write? ” (Line 27). Despite the absence of the assonance, Hughes was still able to convey what the student wanted – to experience life, like the Whites do, until he is old when he smokes his pipe and listen to good music. The professor and the student were a contrast from the start, with conflicts in between.
Hughes found a common ground in Lines 31-33 “You are white — / yet part of me, as I am part of you. / That’s American. ” He followed it up with Lines 37-38 “As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me –” Hughes tried to make his readers see that the equalizer comes in both they’re being Americans. The theme for English B gives a very light treatment, being a free verse, of a compelling issue such as racism. The readers are able to internalize the poem through its rhythm. The tone of the poem is reflective as it is assertive with the use of the poetic voice of “I” coming as it is from someone who has a personal stake on the issue.
Hughes was excellent in the use of a page for composition in an English B class, where the student would use black ink to write on a white sheet of writing paper. The symbolisms accurately portrayed the issue in the poem – that Blacks and Whites despite their difference should not be opposing colors of America. They will both write history and define their future as Americans.

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Hughes, L. (1951). Theme for English B. Retrieved
April 25, 2009 from http://www. eecs. harvard. edu/~keith/poems/English_B. html

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