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Langston Hughes was not afraid to tackle the biggest issues on his world head on—and that's just what he does in "Theme for English B."
Hughes grew up in a world where black people were subjected to a constant and huge amount of discrimination. But rather than give up in frustration in the face of enormous adversity, Hughes joined and helped to lead the Harlem Renaissance. This group of black writers and artists in New York City exploded with creativity, and helped spur the Civil Rights Movement.
So when Hughes writes this poem, which is told from the point of view of a young black student, he's connecting an individual's struggles with the struggle of an entire race. Published in 1949—when Hughes was already a well-respected writer and major voice of his time—the poem is a powerful look at how a black student might relate to (and not relate to) his white professor. The greatness of this poem, though, is that it goes beyond the question of race: it applies to any human being who has ever wondered about the nature of his or her own identity.
Have you ever stopped to wonder, hey now, just exactly who am I? Where do I fit in the world? And could I ever put all that makes up what that craziness I call my "self" is into words?
Well, these are the some of the questions that the speaker of "Theme for English B," struggles with, except the world in which he was asking these questions was in tumult. The speaker of this poem is becoming a black adult in a racist world. Langston Hughes himself graduated from adolescence at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, so he knows about coming of age in a changing, crazy world.
So take how much thinking about your identity makes your head spin. Multiply it by at least 10, because of the generally messed-up environment in which the speaker of this poem lived. Then pull up "Theme for English B," and marvel at the artful way Hughes really gets to the heart of this young individual's place in the world. It just might help you get a better grasp of your "self," too.
Hughes on the Poetry Foundation
Check out his biography and more.
This site boasts a comprehensive biography, plus a cool timeline!
Check out what PBS has to say about our guy.
"Langston Hughes: Voices and Visions"
Check out this documentary on Hughes.
Library of Congress Bio
Here is the Library of Congress's video biography of Hughes.
Video for English B
Here's a jazzy video for "Theme for English B."
Here's one interpretation of "Theme for English B."
"The N**** Speaks of Rivers"
Hughes reads and talks about "The N**** Speaks of Rivers."
"I've Known Rivers"
Check out some audio from The Poetry Foundation about Hughes and his poetry.
Here's a happy picture of Hughes.
Here's Hughes at what might have been the speaker of this poem's age.
The Collected Poems
Get all of Hughes' poems in handy book form!
Poetry for Young People
Here's some kid-friendly poetry from Hughes.
Brother to Brother
This movie looks at the Harlem Renaissance, with Hughes as a character.
Way Down South
This is a movie for which Hughes helped to write the screenplay.