Hearing this poem out loud is like overhearing one end of a conversation. It's not really a prepared speech or anything quite so formal. Nope, it's more of a sneak peak into someone else's stream of consciousness. "Stream of consciousness" means an uninterrupted flow of thoughts, which is how the speaker attacks this assignment. His thoughts seem to flow randomly out onto the page, creating an informal, conversational tone both in terms of the poem's content, but also in terms of its sound.
As we discuss in "Form and Meter," there are many points along the way that the poem's content points to its informal, conversational nature (like the repeated use of the phrase "I guess"). But how does the sound of the poem accomplish this same impression? Take lines 19-20, for example, when the speaker is addressing Harlem:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
By the end, it's like, okay, we get it! Things are a bit confused. But the sound of the line also helps get that point across. For one, the meter of the line is funky, a series of short, syllabic bursts. Sonically, this line stumbles. There's no flow to it at all. And that is pretty much the point. As the speaker contemplates that complex intersection of his self, his environment (Harlem and great New York City), and his writing, his stream of consciousness hits a rough patch.
Still, there is some connection at work, though, and the sound of these lines reminds us of that. The rhyme here is inconsistent (which is in keeping with the speaker's confusion), but it is present in the words "you," "two," "too," and "who." We also get the repetition of "me" in these lines, which adds another rhyme. Amid the stumbling rhythm, there is some symmetry to be found here. So, the use of sound in this moment in the poem mirrors the speaker's confusion, but also suggests a strong thread of connection running through him and his environment.
The sound of this poem also mirrors the speaker's thoughts with the fun alliteration of "Bessie, bop, or Bach," in line 24. We mean, who wouldn't be happy when discussing their favorite records? The speaker's enjoyment comes out in the very sound of the poem, with a bevy of bouncing B sounds to bedazzle us.
So, there is a lot in this poem that gives us insight into the way this speaker is approaching his assignment, and what that approach might say about his experience and personality. We're getting his mind at work on the page, and the sound of the words turned up by that stream of consciousness plays a complementary role in communicating that same idea.
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!
Though this poem is specifically set in Harlem, which is part of New York City, it doesn't stay in Harlem. Instead, the setting expands to include several places, reminding us that the issues confronted by this poem are ones that affect all of America, and perhaps, the world.
Of course, we start out in a familiar setting—a classroom. Our speaker is taking an assignment from his instructor. Right away, the setting lets us know a few things: education is a focus here, and so is power. The speaker is a student, and so he is motivated to learn (or, at least, he should be!). At the same time, he's got instructions to follow. The instructor is the one in charge, and the speaker must oblige him by fulfilling the task that's been set forth for him.
In following those instructions, the speaker takes us on a quick trip down to the South, where he was raised in North Carolina, land of the pines and, as a part of the South, the assumed home to way more racism than there is in Harlem. This setting flashback, then, reminds us that issues of race would have been prevalent in the speaker's life from the very beginning.
After we've moved on back to the present, the setting shifts back, too. We get a little scenic walk through Harlem away from what we can figure out to be City College. The speaker is now putting himself (and us along with him) directly into the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis, a hubbub of humanity that—for all of the people—still had some strict divisions to it (at the time the poem was written, Harlem was considered the province of black and Hispanic New Yorkers, and to a degree still is today). So, the setting switch tells us that some things have changed for our speaker from the South, but that some things have remained the same.
Finally, our speaker reaches a more specific setting: his room at the YMCA. We're guessing that this room in the Y is nothing fancy, so again the setting is revealing something to us: the speaker's economic situation. Really, just by following him around from one setting to the next—from the South, to Harlem, to his room at the Y—we learn a great deal about the speaker's life. In short, he's on the margins of a racist society—on the outside looking in, even while he sits in a college classroom.
And so, the setting in this poem is a vivid backdrop to the drama going on in our speaker's mind. Wrapped up in his quest to find out who he is as a 22-year-old black man, is another quest, a quest that involves the setting. What exactly is Harlem? What's New York? What's America? And how do I, the speaker asks, and all these people, so different from me, fit into this big country together?
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.
This is a fairly easy to read, conversational poem, but it's long, and deals with some difficult, intense themes. Still, just because this poem may be down at base camp doesn't mean it won't offer the climber a spectacular view.
Hughes writes a lot about how race can affect identity. In this poem, the young speaker is wondering how being the only colored person in the class might affect the truth that's supposed to come out of a page he writes for an assignment. That gives Hughes a way to directly ask the questions about race that might come to a young person's head—does being black make you like different things than white people like? Does being black make you unable to learn from someone who is white? What is being American when you are black, and is it different from being American when you are white?
These questions are explored directly in this specific poem, but they're present in a lot of Hughes' work. Yet that doesn't mean that his poetry is only interesting because of its comments on race. Everyone, no matter what color they are, has to shape an identity for themselves. This is a struggle that Hughes explores here in detail, but also elsewhere in much of his poetry.
There is no set form and meter in this poem, but there's definitely a science to the way it's structured—even if that science is to make the poem seem as if it has no structure.
Let's back up: The poem is supposed to be fulfilling an assignment for a college English class. But it includes the assignment in the poem, so right away we know this is no average assignment, and no lazy college student. This poem is set up to be more.
Yet throughout the poem, we get hints that the poem is written in a stream of consciousness style. "Stream of consciousness" means writing down the first thing that comes to mind, and just rolling with it. Things like asking questions (line 6) and describing the journey home from class in detail (11-14), support this style. It's casual, and seems as if it's flowing straight from the speaker's head.
Whether or not the poem was actually written in stream of consciousness, or just made to seem that way, the casual style instantly allows the reader to connect with the speaker. This isn't a hoity-toity poem with lots of difficult metaphors and parts that are hard to get through. It's more like we're given a glimpse into the speaker's mind.
We get so far inside his mind, in fact, that sometimes we nearly get lost. Take, for example:
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who? (18-20)
Who did what with the when now? These lines are kind of confusing to read, but that's because they're supposed to be. In a poem that grapples with identity—what it means to be black, white, or human—the speaker uses form to communicate the confusion that can result from such a line of questioning. This is not a speaker who has everything figured out. He's someone who is searching for answers. The stream of consciousness of lines like these helps to get that idea across.
As a result, they also make our speaker more relatable. As he attempts to make a connection across the page with his instructor, he makes a connection with the reader. Lucky for us, that's pretty appropriate for this poem, which is all about engagement and all not about separation—like the kind of distance you might feel when trudging through a super-tough, complex poem. Nope. This speaker wants us to know that, "As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me—" (37-38). For that to happen, there must be a personal connection at work, which is made through the poem's conversational, open form.
How does the form accomplish this? Well, it's mainly with word choice. Take, for example, the phrase: "I guess." This isn't a long poem, but we see that phrase three times: in lines 17, 21, and 38. What's up with that? Was Hughes really just guessing? Likely not. Instead, this phrase is like a verbal tic (like, "you know?" or "anyways") that gets repeated in spoken conversation. So, reading this poem is a lot like being in a personal convo.
That's not to say that poetic form just gets chucked out the window, though. Oh, no. Like any good conversation, this poem keeps us at the edge of our seat, waiting to hear what comes next. One way it does that is through enjambment. By ending lines mid-sentence, the reader is brought along with some inertia into the next line. For example, take those same lines:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me— (37-38)
After line 37, we're left hanging. "As I learn from you…" What? Tell us! Ah, the suspense is killing! So, we head to line 38 with a question in the back of our mind, much like the speaker has burning questions—about race and society—in the back of his mind, and in the lines of this poem!
This poem is written by the only black student in a class with a white instructor. Throughout the poem, the difference between being colored and white is discussed—whether it's race, or a piece of paper. There are some clever puns waiting to be found in this poem, but the discussion of black and white here is far more than clever. It's revealing, and moving.
Throughout the poem, specific locations are mentioned. We get the sense that geographic locations are a huge part of the speaker's identity. Geography, indeed, plays a big role in race, especially back when this poem was published, in 1951. Following about a century after the Civil War, the southern United States was the hub of racism, while the north was considered more progressive. But as we can see from this poem, the races were in conflict everywhere. This poem also uses places to enrich its specificity and detail. We feel like we are a part of the speaker when we hear about the places where he lives his life.
It's no surprise that there's a lot of talk about learning in this poem—after all, the poem is supposed to be an assignment for an English class. But learning, in this poem, is about so much more than school. It's about figuring out your identity, and growing as you interact with other people. Yet a lot of this discovery is placed in the language of classroom learning.
This poem doesn't really talk about sex. It talks about being in love, but even then none of the mushy stuff gets mentioned. It might take a mature mind to really grasp this poem, but there's no explicit sexuality, or even a sexual undercurrent.