Theme for English B
by Langston Hughes
If you didn't know too much about Langston Hughes, it would be tempting to think that the speaker of the poem is Hughes himself—he's either the one in this college class, or he's remembering back to his college days.
But don't get caught up in that interpretation, because upon examination of Hughes' life, it becomes pretty clear that he and his speaker are not one and the same, though they may have some shared beliefs. First of all, Hughes was not born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, like our speaker. He was born in Joplin, Missouri. Instead of heading to Durham, he then headed to Ohio, and Illinois. Hughes went to college in Harlem—but the college in the poem, if you look at a map of Harlem can easily be identified as City College, while Hughes studied in Columbia.
Hughes, though he is not the speaker, may remember someone like the speaker from his college years, and may have even had a conversation that is a lot like this poem. But it's not really our job as readers to try to identify what real life person may be the speaker of the poem. Our job is to look at the poem first, and imagine what the speaker is like from what's there on that page.
Lucky for us, the speaker of this poem makes it pretty easy for us to imagine what he's like. He was born and raised in relatively quiet towns in the South, but now lives in the middle of a big city, studying at college. He is living at the YMCA, so he probably doesn't have much money to speak of. He likes the normal things any 22-year-old would enjoy, and we're guessing that if we ran into this guy at a bar, we'd probably end up talking about music and pipes and which girls or guys were the best looking.
But, at the same time that our speaker is just an average 22-year-old, he's more. For one, he's black in an age that was riddled with racism. Yet he's open-minded and brave enough to confront that reality, even while surrounded by white students and being taught by a white instructor. Think about it: it would be very easy to write a page about anything other than race. It's not a topic he has to confront. Still, even though it may make him (and his readers) uncomfortable, he recognizes the importance of tackling this issue head-on. He's serious about discovering who he is, as a young black man, and where he fits into a world dominated by white people.
So, in one respect, our speaker is a pretty typical college student: he's grappling with homework, love, and all the normal things that a young person grapples with. But at the same time, he's also challenging a world in which some people are freer than others. In that way, he's an example to any regular student out there. You don't have to be in a position of power to ask an important question, or take on a challenging issue. You just have to have the courage of your convictions.