Theme for English B
by Langston Hughes
Section 4, Lines 28-41 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Being me, it will not be white.
- This line seems pretty simple at first, but when you think about it, it's got a few layers to it.
- The first would be to think that the speaker is just using the idiom, "being me." Because he is who he is, the page that he writes won't be just white.
- This operates on a few levels. Obviously, if he completes the assignment, the page won't be white—it will be filled with writing. Being him, he would of course complete the assignment.
- Or, he could be speaking about white in terms of the white race. Because he is himself, a black man, the page that he writes won't seem like it's written by a white man.
- There's also a subtle play here with the structure of this line. Read smoothly, it comes along in the cadence of speaking. But if you pay attention to the grammar, it almost seems as if the speaker is saying that the page is him ("Being me"). That links us back to the assignment given earlier in this poem—that if the page comes out of the speaker, it will be true. It will also, then, come from our speaker who is black, be black, not white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
- Here we get another example of enjambment, of which the poem is chock-full. (For more on this, check out "Form and Meter.") As a refresher, enjambment is a literary device in which lines are split mid-thought.
- In line 29, we get the follow up to the reasoning that the page won't be white. We get a teaser that the page will be something which, thanks to the enjambment, we have to skip down to line 30 to find out about.
- The page will be a part of the instructor, our speaker says, after dropping down to the next line. The enjambment almost makes it seem as if the speaker is arguing with himself—the page won't be white, but then again, a part of it will be. It's only once we move a line farther down that we know the speaker's taking us somewhere different with the line.
- He's taking us to the idea that the page that he writes will be a part of his instructor. This could mean a few different things. First of all, it could be simply referring to the fact that this page is only being written because of an assignment given by the instructor. The other thing is that perhaps the speaker is saying, when you read something, it becomes a part of you. The instructor, who's bound to read the page, will thus have it be made part of him. So, everything that we read, in turn, could become a part of us. (Has "Theme for English B" become a part of you?)
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
- So, we already knew that the speaker was the only black person in his class, but now we hear that the instructor is white.
- Then, the speaker goes on to say that he and his instructor are a part of each other.
- The word "yet" is clutch here. Coming before the claim that the instructor and speaker are part of each other, it sets up the sentiment that it's a new or striking thought that, despite being different colors, these two people can be in each other's lives in a meaningful way. This might not seem like a big statement, but remember the setting of this poem, which was published in 1951. Then, racism and segregation still created a lot of tension and hatred between the two races.
- This statement by the speaker, then, strives to bring the two races together. It says: Hey—we may be different, as different as black and white paper. But we're still a part of each other. Maybe, it's saying, we can work together, as can all black and white people.
- Now, the speaker moves from connecting the two races, through the relationship of himself, black, and his instructor, white, to making a statement about America in general.
- Despite the hesitance seen in the speaker's assertion that he and his instructor are part of each other, in lines 31-32, he's now moving to a more confident stance. We have our disagreements, this line is saying, but it's American to realize that differences are differences, yet we all still influence each other. This line, and this poem, are thus becoming intertwined in the view of America as the Melting Pot, where cultures and people from all over the world come together, mixing together to create something uniquely 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!
- The speaker is admittedly hesitant about identifying his instructor and himself as part of each other. While the structure of these lines, with words like "sometimes" and "perhaps" and "often" is still tentative, the lines are wrapped up with an affirmative statement, made certain by an exclamation point.
- We see that the hesitation about whether or not the speaker and his instructor are part of each other is because, well, they don't really want to be a part of each other. They might even be happier never influencing each other at all. But as line 36 exclaims, they are part of each other, no matter what.
- Maybe they don't want to be part of each other because they are different races, maybe it's because it's the student finds instructors who give homework annoying.
- The use of pronouns in these lines, without bringing the situation back to the specific instructor/student relationship, has a certain effect. Whenever the pronoun "you," is used, it makes us readers reflect upon ourselves. In some way, the speaker declares that he's a part of us, too.
- Thinking about these lines as about white and black people is probably the most relevant to the rest of the poem, and the racist time in which it was written.
- White people and black people, in 1951, when this poem was published, were hostile to each other. It was past the turbulence of the Harlem Renaissance, not yet the civil rights movement of the sixties, and far from the integrated world that we have today.
- Either way, though, the white and the black, the student and his instructor, the speaker and his readers, are a part of each other.
- Note the word "true." Remember the assignment from lines 2-5 saying that if this page came from the writer, it would be true. Here, the speaker is commenting on the truth that he feels has come out of this assignment. The phrase is emphasized, and made cheerful, by the exclamation point at the end. We can almost imagine the speaker reading this poem aloud in class, his voice rising with this line.
- We may not want to be a part of each other, he's saying, but we're stuck, for better or for worse. And to make it more important, that is more than a student's simple observation—it's true. Despite the exclamation point, which makes us think this is an uplifting statement, we can still detect a little bitterness about the nature of this truth, and the society it exists in. After all, if the speaker can recognize this truth, why can't everybody else?
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
- These lines continue to tie together the student and his instructor, the speaker and his audience, and the white and the black. They still have that hesitant, conversational tone, the speaker saying "I guess" in line 38.
- Let's break it down. In line 37, the speaker says that he's learning from his instructor. Well, duh, he's a student. But this perhaps carries more than the obvious meaning. His instructor is different from him. He's white. In the 1950s, a black student's feelings towards a white instructor would be quite complicated, especially when the black student is the only one of his race in his class.
- Yet, still, he's learning from the instructor. And, perhaps more surprising, he says that the instructor is learning from him.
- If you talk to teachers, one thing you will hear most of them say is that they learn from their students. In fact, some people say that they learn from most people they meet and spend time with. Each new person has a different way of looking at life, and different ideas and insights.
- But the learning in this situation could be even more powerful because of the influence of race. This white instructor could have a lot to learn from his one black student, or he could close his mind and maintain any prejudices he may have. It seems, however, that both parties in this situation are open-minded enough to learn.
- Then you've also got to think about these lines in the general sense. The word "learn" kicks us back immediately to the specific—the instructor—but the general pronouns still leave us able to think about the wider meanings of this line. White people and black people learn from each other, as do writers and their audiences.
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
- If this poem were a joke, these lines would be the final set up and the punch line. They take all of the debate of the poem and pack it together into two hard-hitting, emotional lines.
- First, we have the speaker narrowing down the pronoun "you." Here, he's definitely talking specifically about his instructor, who is older, and white, unlike our young black speaker.
- Still, even though the speaker is being specific, if the person reading this poem did happen to be older and white, he would probably identify with the instructor.
- So we've got the fairly harmless set up of line 39, which seems to be merely stating some obvious facts.
- Then we jump down to line 40, and it's like a punch in the gut—we need to catch our breaths. From older and white, we get "more free." For a country that considers itself a model of freedom for the world, this observation hits hard.
- However, as the speaker would say, it's true. As a white person in the '40s and '50s, the instructor certainly would have had far more opportunities than his black student, whether it was more freedom of choice about where to sit on the bus, where to apply for jobs, or where to buy a house. Everything in life was harder and more limited for a black person, and the government backed up individuals' prejudices. Sure, there's plenty of injustice and prejudice today, but at least now, it's illegal.
- Then there's the qualifier: "somewhat." Is the speaker hedging his bets here? Is he suggesting that having "somewhat" less freedom is not as bad as having a whole lot less? A more likely reading is that this a classic case of understatement. The speaker really intends to drive this point home to the white instructor, but he undercuts it to heighten the effect and invite the instructor to consider just how much freedom he has, compare to his black student.
This is my page for English B.
- This line wraps up the entire poem, and ties it together.
- Sure, line 40 is probably the most hard hitting, evocative line in the poem, but this line also has an important effect. It's set aside, all by itself, and reminds us of the poem's title and the mundane thought of English B, a standard, run-of-the-mill, college class.
- The stanza before this line, as conversationally as it may be written, is full of intense emotions and statements about race, America, and truth.
- So what, then, is the effect of bringing the poem to an end with a simple, unemotional statement? Well, for one, it reminds us that the speaker is a person. A kid, even, who likes the things other kids like, as we learn in lines 21 to 24. It also reminds us of the irony of this assignment—that something as magnificent as truth can come from a simple page of writing, from the heart as it may be. Wrapped up in this irony, though, is the truth that has, indeed, arisen from the assignment in this poem, even if it's a meta-truth—a truth about truth. The truth, this page has said, depends on who you are, who you're learning from, and who is a part of you. The truth is also that white and black people, and perhaps all people, play a big role in forming each other's identity. The truth, also, in the time that this poem is written, is that white people were freer than black people.
- How do you feel about these truths? Do they discomfort you? Enrage you? Encourage you? Make you want to go recite this poem on a busy street corner in Harlem, in your best booming voice?
- For the speaker, they may do any of these things. But, after all, he's just a student, writing his humble page for English B. And while finding the truth may not be so simple as writing a page from the heart, this page, indeed, points in the right direction.