Theme for English B
by Langston Hughes
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
The title of this poem is misleadingly simple. It makes the poem seem like just an assignment for a class, English B—which could be a class in any college. Put yourself back in your high school or college English class (maybe that's what you're reading this poem for in the first place!). Come on. Just try it. We know it's tough, but imagine the sleepy discussions about poetry and novels. Imagine that kooky English professor coming up with some crazy assignment, and the whole class rolling their eyes. Imagine lengthy discussions about different themes.
Now that we've got a picture in our heads about what setting the title reminds us of, we can break it down a little bit. The "theme" in the title of this poem isn't really a theme like your English professor would ask you to draw out of a book, or like we'll discuss later in the "Themes" section. Of course, the poem talks about themes like truth and freedom and race, and the word "theme" in the title could refer to the overall feeling and pattern of thoughts that the class touches on.
But it could also be relating the poem to the musical concept of a theme. In music, a theme is a complete, recognizable melody that a whole song could be based on, and which is often repeated throughout the song. Plenty of jazz songs have the word theme in their titles. As we know from his mention of Bessie Smith and Bach in line 24, the speaker of this poem likes music.
So, perhaps, the speaker is relating his page to themes in literature, and themes in music. After all, the two are similar. Like a repeating melody in music, a theme in literature can tie together a whole novel or poem. English classes, and people's lives, can work the same way—themes can tie them together and define them.
And in the end, the theme of this… theme is one of personal awareness, social connection, and a reflection upon the role of race in America. This isn't just any old assignment, folks. It's an opportunity for the speaker to reflect and, importantly, invite his instructor (and us with him or her) along for the ride. Rather than busywork that's done for a grade, the broader, social themes at work make this a meaningful exercise for everyone involved: the speaker, the instructor, and, best of all, us!