Fulfilling the assignment

(National Poetry Month, Day 9)

 

Imagine that you are a second-semester English course in college. Your professor distributes a sheet with the printed assignment for the first paper you’ll write in the course. You expect to be told the length restrictions, format requirements, subject of the paper, and more. With eager anticipation, and perhaps a little bit of dread, you begin to read the assignment.

 

But you might as well not bother to read the assignment, because it basically just says “write something.”

 

What do you do?

 

If I were in this position, I probably would simply cry.

 

However, this is not what the persona in Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” does.

 

Think of the ingenuity—and perhaps even impudence—required to fulfill the assignment in the form of the poem that the persona produces.

 

Yet, what results is certainly true, and it’s probably much truer than the professor would like to admit.

 

So, here we have it: the power of writing (specifically, the power of poetry) to express truths that are difficult to accept, and sometimes even difficult to recognize.

 

 

Theme for English B

by Langston Hughes

 

The instructor said,

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

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
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.
(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?
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.

This is my page for English B.

Langston Hughes

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