Study Guide

Theme for English B Race

By Langston Hughes

Race

I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem. (7)

One of the first things our speaker tells us about himself is that he is black. He considers this to be an important part of who he is, and important for us to know, before we read. Think about how your race defines you, and how your friends' races define them. When you interact or have a conversation with someone of a different race, does it change anything? Is race important to your identity? Those are the questions our speaker is thinking about throughout this poem. Sometimes, it seems as if people are scared to talk about race, because they're worried about being politically correct. Not so our speaker. He tackles the issue head on.

I am the only colored student in my class. (10)

Our speaker is a minority of one. Think about any time you've been a minority of one—maybe you've been the only black person in a group of white people, like our speaker, or vice versa. Or maybe you've been the only boy in a group of girls, or vice versa. How has that made you feel? Now, imagine what it must have been like for our speaker in the 1950s, when this poem was published. He's a young black male, breaking through boundaries that some white people took great pains to construct. It's very likely that some of his fellow students did not want him to be in that class, and harbored racist feelings towards him. Yet here, our speaker isn't talking about how being the only black person makes him feel. He's just stating the fact, and we can guess what it must have been like.

I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write? (25-27)

Basically, our speaker is taking a roundabout way of saying, "Hey, you know, black and white people like the same sort of stuff—sleep, music, good company." It's telling of the racism of the time period that he has to go out of his way to make this point. Here, he's also tying his race back to his writing assignment, using a clever pun to ask if his page, white before it's written on, will, like his skin, be colored.

Being me, it will not be white. (28)

This line again backs up the speaker's connection to his race. He's just talking about a page on a piece of paper here, but then again, he's talking about the truth. He's saying that if he sits down and writes a page that comes out of him, like his assignment tells him to, it's not going to be white—as in blank, and also as in the skin color. So his race informs his writing, and, if you follow the logic of the assignment, it also informs what's true for him.

You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. (31-32)

The speaker directly addresses his instructor here. He states distinctly "you are white," as if this were monumental, some huge deal—and in this time period, for a black student, it kind of is. But despite their difference in color, these two people are a part of each other. They may not want anything to do with each other, but they are part of each other whether they like it or not. The poem says that's part of being American, but maybe it's part of being human. Yet, that doesn't mean there's no racial tension between them.

As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free. (37-40)

While we've gotten some hints of racial tension throughout the poem, here we get it spelled out. The white instructor is "somewhat more free." This line, in an explorative, even playful poem, rings as bitter and strong, that shock of rich coffee after a sleepy morning. But it's just stating a reality of the time period. Because the instructor is white in the 1950s, he has more opportunities and privileges than his black student. Yet the student doesn't seem to hate him for it. In fact, he claims that both parties learn from each other. What do you think? Is it possible to learn from, or be a part of, someone you're prejudiced against, or from someone who is prejudiced against you?