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Langston Hughes

Theme for English B

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1951

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Summary and Study Guide


“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes was originally published in the Spring 1949 issue of Common Ground magazine. In 1951, “Theme for English B” was included in Hughes’s book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred. Hughes compared his Montage to “Afro-American popular music,” specifically jazz and be-bop music, “the music of a community in transition” (The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes). This book was published late in Hughes’s career; he began publishing poetry collections in 1926.

“Theme for English B” is a free-verse poem written about Harlem. Hughes is a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement, and many of his poems celebrate life in this borough of New York City. “Theme for English B” is written in the persona of a Black student at City College of New York, and it illuminates the experience of being Black in a mostly-white college classroom.

Poet Biography

In 1902, James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. His father, James Nathaniel Hughes, worked in a mining company as a stenographer, and his mother, Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, was a writer and actress. After Hughes’s parents split, Hughes’s mother married Homer Clark. Throughout his childhood, Hughes lived with various family members and in various locations—including Kansas, Illinois, Mexico, and Ohio.

Hughes began publishing poetry and short stories while still attending high school in 1918. He attended college at Columbia University from 1921-1922 before leaving due to the racially hostile environment. After working odd jobs in the states and continuing to publish poems, Hughes began to travel as a seaman, visiting Africa and Europe. In 1924, he abandoned his job on the ship and lived in Paris, working in a jazz nightclub.

While staying with his mother in Washington, D.C. in 1925, Hughes’s poem “The Weary Blues” won a literary contest, and this led to his first book deal. While continuing to publish his work, Hughes completed his degree at Lincoln University, graduating in 1929.

In the 1930s, Hughes traveled extensively overseas, visiting and living in Cuba, Haiti, the former Soviet Union, China, Europe, and Mexico. In America, Hughes lived in many states, including California, Ohio, and New York. He had numerous books of poetry published, and his plays were performed. Also, Hughes translated the works of Mexican authors and Federico Garcia Lorca. In 1939, Hughes co-wrote the movie script for Way Down South.

In the 1940s, Hughes lived in California, Chicago, and New York, and he toured extensively across the U.S. as a lecturer and speaker. He published an autobiography and a weekly newspaper column in addition to collections of verse. The plays he authored were staged, and one was adapted into the opera, Troubled Island. He received an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University in 1943 and taught for a semester at Atlanta University.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hughes continued to publish extensively in a wide variety of genres and had his writing performed on the stage. He was accused, tried, and exonerated of communist activities by McCarthy’s subcommittee on subversive activities in 1953. Hughes continued to travel, visiting locations such as Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Berlin, Paris, and Italy. He died in 1967 of prostate cancer.

Poem Text

Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” 1949. Poetry Foundation.


“Theme for English B” is a jazz-inspired free-verse poem with five stanzas of varying lengths. Some of the lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is spontaneous rather than structured. While the narrative is first-person, the speaker and poet are not equivalent; the speaker is a resident of Harlem, and the poem generally speaks to the marginalized Black experience within New York academia.

The first two stanzas introduce a writing assignment. An unnamed college instructor asks students to write one page about themselves.

The first half of the third stanza contemplates the assignment as the speaker questions whether it is as easy as the instructor suggests. Then, the speaker identifies himself with his age (22), race (Black), and hometown (Winston-Salem). Next, he relays that he took classes in North Carolina and now attends a college in New York City. He is the only Black person in his class.

The second half of the third stanza describes the speaker’s journey through Harlem, from the City College of New York to the YMCA, where he takes an elevator to his room and begins to write.

The fourth stanza is the text of the assignment. The speaker begins by repeating an idea from the assignment prompt: the truth of experience, including his age. He decides that his identity consists of his sensory experiences as a Harlem resident. In other words, he touches, looks at, and listens to the city; it is in dialogue with him. Then, the speaker lists what he likes: dining, learning, and being in love. He lists some music he enjoys, including jazz and classical.

In the same stanza, the speaker reflects on his racial difference from his fellow students and instructor. While he may enjoy some of the same things they do, he feels his writing will contain elements of Blackness. However, his assignment will also include elements of craft learned from his white teacher. The speaker describes the experience of diversity—integrating both Black and white perspectives—as American.

Furthermore, the Black student and white teacher share some communal identity based on their common New York locale, whether they like it or not. Because of their differences, the student can educate the teacher, who experiences more freedom due to race and age.

The fifth and final stanza reiterates that this is the speaker’s submission for the assignment.

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