Theme For English B Essay

699 words - 3 pages

​In 1951, Langston Hughes wrote “Theme for English B” using the persona of a 22-year old African American who had come to New York City as part of the post-World War II Great Migration.  The set up for the poem is deceptively simple:  the English professor has given the students an autobiographical assignment in jaunty rhyme, “Go home and write/ a page tonight” (2-3).   Everybody has done assignments like this, and from a position of privilege, the teacher assumes that the students will easily be able to fulfill the work comfortably.  This reminded me strongly of other assignments that weren’t so easy for students and put them on the spot, like asking a classmate to do a family tree when they were adopted from another country, or asking someone who is a religious minority to stand up and talk about their holiday traditions.  
​Hughes’ narrator is a minority among his classmates, black when they are white, even though the City College of New York is in Harlem.  He is also slightly older than they are, 22 when they are probably 18 in a freshman English class.  The narrator, having moved to the city from Winston-Salem and Durham, North Carolina, has had a very different life experience than his classmates, coming from a deeply rural and segregated agricultural place to the big urban metropolis.  He’s living at the YMCA, which suggests that he is saving his money, since it was an inexpensive hostel rather than a family home or a dorm.  
​The narrator then take a shot at finding commonalities with his instructor and his classmates, offering that “I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. /I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.”  Who doesn’t?  But saying that he enjoys them doesn’t mean that he is allowed to participate in these life activities like his white classmates.  In 1951, even in New York City, there were significant barriers to an African-American man eating, drinking or studying where he liked, not to mention that...

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