Theme For English B Poem Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


One of Langston Hughes’ most well-known poems is “Theme for English B.” Through the depiction of a black man’s writing assignment, it delves into themes of identity and race. Hughes portrays a youthful, twenty-two-year-old narrator in ‘Theme for English B,’ who speaks about his own experience as a black man in a predominantly white neighborhood. Despite being written decades ago, this poem, like many others by Hughes, is still relevant in today’s society. 

About the poet

James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) was a Joplin, Missouri-born poet, social activist, writer, dramatist, and columnist. He is best recognized as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and was one of the early inventors of the literary art form known as jazz poetry. Hughes was raised in a variety of Midwestern communities and became a prolific writer at a young age before moving to New York City. He attended Columbia and Lincoln Universities and created plays, short tales, and nonfiction works. From 1942 through 1962, he authored a weekly in-depth piece for The Chicago Defender.


Line 1-5

The instructor said,
      Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

The speaker begins ‘Theme for English B,’ in the first words, by outlining the task he was assigned. The speaker, a little child, describes how he was instructed to “God home and write / a page tonight.” It might be anything; all that is required is for it to “come out of you.” This usage of personification gives the impression that the page is behaving independently and making its own decisions. The teacher says that it should be a natural process. 

Line 6-14

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator

The third stanza is 10 lines long and conveys the young speaker’s feelings toward writing. He wonders if it’s really “that simple” to write. He tells the reader a little about himself. The speaker is a twenty-two-year-old black male from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the only black kid in his class. These facts distinguish him from the people around him. They make him doubt his ability to write.

Line 15-19

up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.

The following stanza of ‘Theme for English B’ is only five lines long. It conveys his uncertainty about his place in life and how it connects to people around him. When you’re young, it’s difficult to tell what’s true and what isn’t. But he is aware of the fundamentals. He is present, and he can “feel, see, and hear, Harlem, I hear you.” This place beckons to him and muddles the language, making it difficult to understand who is speaking and what they are talking about. He’s at a point in his life where he’s just beginning to figure out who he is and what part he has to play.

Line 20-27

(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
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?

The speaker contrasts his life to that of his peers in the next sequence of sentences. They are related in a variety of aspects, the most important of which are reading, learning, and comprehending life. He is not so different in that he does not like “the same things other people of different races like.” But, he adds, he is distinct in a significant way. The paper he writes on will “not be white.”

Line 28-40

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

The speaker realizes in the last lines of ‘Theme for English B’ that there are several parts of himself that are all essential in their own way. The page he writes, a metaphor for his future life, will be impacted by “you, instructor.” Because this person is white, it will influence both New York and Harlem. He considers his relationship with “you,” the teacher, and wonders how much they are alike. They don’t always want to be a part of each other’s lives or tales, but they are “that’s true!” He learns from his white tutor and thinks that they may also learn from him. This might be true even though they are “older—and white—/ and somewhat more free.” 

Line 41

This is my page for English B.

The poem concludes with the line “This is my page for English B.” He went out to write and let what was “true” settle on the paper, as the instructor instructed. The assignment finished itself.