Study Guide

Theme for English B Black and White Imagery

By Langston Hughes

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Black and White Imagery

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.

  • Line 7: Here we get the basic picture of the speaker as black, or, as he says here, "colored." The word "colored" may seem to be just a simple word describing the race of the speaker, but placed in context, it's far more than that. When this poem was published in 1951, "colored" was a much more prominent way of describing someone who was black or African American. It was also the word that went on top of signs denoting separate bathrooms or facilities for white people and black people. Now, the word is almost taboo, and certainly would make anyone who used it seem at the least old-fashioned, and probably racist. 
  • Line 10: Here, we see the word "colored" instead of black or African American again. This line gives us a vivid image—one black person in a class full of white people. This makes us think that the speaker must feel a little isolated, a little out of his element, a little alone. 
  • Lines 25-26: Here, we get a little direct questioning about the theme of race in the poem. We knew that he was feeling a little isolated, and now, he's connecting himself with other people, saying that he likes the same things people in other races like. Regardless of race, he's making a case for shared humanity.
  • Line 27: Now we get a little wordplay. The speaker asks if the page that he writes will be colored. He's asking if the page he writes is going to be different because it's written by a black person. But he's also playing on the idea that a page of paper is white, and that when there's ink on it, it will no longer be white. 
  • Line 28: The black and white wordplay continues. The word white has two meanings here. The page will not be like it was written by a white person. But it also won't be white because it will be written on. 
  • Lines 31-32: Here, the speaker states plainly that his instructor is white, just like he stated plainly earlier that he was colored. This gives us plain and simple imagery. It's in line 32 that things start to blend together, literally. Even though the speaker and his instructor are completely different colors, they're a part of each other. So black and white begin to mix. 
  • Lines 39-40: Here, we see that white and colored are more than just colors. Being older and white makes the instructor more free. Skin color, in this poem, has become a symbol of status and of freedom—reflective of the age that the poem was written in, and possibly still reflective of the world today.

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