Bookending my higher education experience is a common situation: finding myself in an intense dialogue with the professor and then realizing I was essentially the only student participating in that discussion.
As a first-year (actually first semester) student, Mr. Pruitt and I were enthusiastically exploring Henry David Thoreau, and maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson. During a doctoral course on educational theory, Dr. Holton and I were wrestling with Joseph Schwab.
My life as a student was mostly a good one, and I needed little prompting to enjoy learning or to appreciate and marvel at my teachers and professors—this the result of being a mama’s boy, she my first and a wonderful teacher.
During my junior and senior years as an undergraduate, Dr. Nancy Moore—short hair, button-down collar shirts, and slacks—was a recurring professor in my program. Nancy was incredibly kind to me, supportive and complimentary in a way that lifted me out of my essential low self-esteem.
Nancy’s courses, as well, were my first introductions to diverse literature—Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Toni Morrison.
Although a nearly terminal redneck, I was a white, male student who had been gifted (both genetically and culturally) the socially valued verbal and mathematical skills considered “smart.” And thus, my venture into formal education was mostly unlike that of Langston Hughes.
Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes’s life-/career-span (1902-1967) likely seems to be the distant past for many high school or undergraduate students. But one of the most powerful aspects of poetry by Hughes for me is how present his work is, every time I return to it.
As a reader and a poet, I am drawn to work that appears simple (as if anyone could have written it) and simultaneously reveals that only this poet could have shaped this verse, that the accessible words and phrasing disguise something rich, complex, and enduring.
“The instructor said,” opens “Theme for English B”—establishing one of the poem’s major themes, the imbalance of power.
“Theme for English B” is a narrative in poetic form that weaves race, place, and power in order to challenge the inequity inherent in all “[t]hat’s American.”
The writing prompt at the opening of the poem strikes me as surreal—far too open and inviting for what traditionally is a writing prompt in English courses, but Hughes immediately shakes the reader: “I wonder if it’s that simple?” because “I am the only colored student in my class.”
And now the poem runs.
The poem’s speaker details his race and his place (actually places) in order to confront truth:
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.
The poem has now complicated the speaker’s situation with both black/white and South/North dichotomies—the latter, I think, is wonderfully enriched by also reading Countee Cullen’s “Incident.”
For the speaker, despite the careful outlining of his humanity as beyond racial or regional stereotypes, the issue remains, “So will my page be colored that I write?/Being me, it will not be white.”
There is a tinge of defiance along with both youthful exuberance and wiseness beyond his 22 years, and then a heavy awareness by the end:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
As a writer/poet and teacher, I am then profoundly—and every time I re-read this poem—moved by the last line signifying that this student under the weight of race, place, and an unfair imbalance or power has submitted an essay that is true in the same simple language used to open the poem: “This is my page for English B.”
A poem that is a student’s college essay—this becomes an enduring lesson about race, place, and the imbalance of power.