Langston Hughes: Theme for English B

I love the pun in the title. His theme for English B, be (is). And this way of speaking with a slang is what we might expect not only from a young black man, but also from the point of view of “The instructor”. My theme be … The pun is deepened with his use of Y and so we get a conflict between being and the why-ness of being. In school he’s learning about poetry … which he goes home to the Y (YMCA) to write about and think about the “why” of his work.

The instructions are clear – write a page and whatever you write will be true. And from a metaphysical level then anything we write is true in that it was written, truly. So there is an inherent paradox built in here, one of identifying the truth – in this case the truth about race – and one of how will anyone know what the truth is just from a poem for English B?

So then why do we be? Y we B? The slang and rhythm of black language is built right into this poem, but it conflicts with his liking “the same things other folks like who are other races.”, things such as “Bessie, bop, or Bach.” And Bach stands out here since it’s more unlike Bessie and bop and is something he might share in common with “The instructor”.

And of course “The instructor” is white – the white man tells the black man what things are (how they ‘be’”. But he’s traveling through “St. Nicholas, / Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue” to get to the Y – a bit of a journey from his classes and much more in the real world.

But this is a two-way communication he’s having. He listening (he is asking “Y”) of his school and of New York in general – they hear each other (they are both here, too – another possible play on language), “hear you, hear me – we two – you, me, talk on this page”, and though he is black and “The instructor” is white, there is at least grounds for open dialogue to listen to each other and learn how the other B.

Yet the overall tone of the paper has the feeling of it being just riffed on the spot. He ends with the “This is my page for English B.” as if he’s just tossing it on the instructor’s desk like he barely worked on it, as if it just poured out of him but then he didn’t give it that much thought after being done. He’s doing “B” work, not “A” work, yet the poem is an “A” poem in that it’s capturing the truth of the poet (his life and situation and race) and doing so artfully.

This is a fun poem to get your brain all mixed around with. It’s sort of endless. I give it an A.