One of the primary features of a lyric poem is that it expresses the thoughts and feelings of its speaker. The assumption of such poems is that by describing what is inside of them, narrators of lyrics are able to articulate the truth about themselves. Expression, then, assumes that the speaker has a coherent identity that is accessible and only needs to be retrieved and described in order to manifest the truth.
In his poem "Theme for English B," Langston Hughes complicates the idea that the lyric "I" is a reflection of a coherent, stable identity by calling into question the notion that one can reveal the truth simply by expressing oneself. Instead, Hughes suggests that the self, rather than being coherent and autonomous, is actually the effect of relationships. These relationships inevitably involve power and, in Hughes's case, include race, age, national, and professional identity.
Hughes frames the idea that expression can get at the truth by exploring what we can only take to be an autobiographical encounter between himself and one of his college teachers. After introducing his teacher's assignment instructions for an essay, Hughes spends the rest of the poem responding to them and exposing their faulty assumptions. He answers his instructor's directive to go home and write by first questioning the directive's apparent simplicity and then by providing a brief history of his home. He tells us that he is a black man who was born in the South (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and is now attending a white school in the North (Columbia University in New York City). These differences alone complicate the assignment, as they highlight Hughes's feeling of alienation and the difficulty of "going home." Underscoring this difficulty is the speaker's description of the long route he takes to his current home, a room at the Harlem YMCA, and his description of Harlem--a predominantly black community--as literally down the hill from the university. By characterizing his "home" in terms of distance and difficulty, Hughes emphasizes how "un-simple" description is; how, regardless of what we say or write about something, we are always taking a position because we are saying one thing instead of another. If, for example, he had described himself in terms of gender (male) and sexuality instead of age and race, and if he had described Columbia University in terms of how it appeared rather than where it was in relation to Harlem, we would have a completely different image of Hughes and his dilemma.
In the second stanza, Hughes moves from description to meditation, as he continues to ponder the very possibility of fulfilling his white instructor's assignment.
Here the speaker underlines the fact that what is true for him might not be true for his instructor. But he isn't quite sure of what is true for himself. Even the outside world that he sees, feels, and hears isn't enough to provide a definition of his identity. Though he identifies with Harlem (presumably because of its black population), he also recognizes that Harlem itself is a part of a larger entity, New York City. Hughes then moves from answering his instructor to answering himself, as he ruminates on what makes him different from others. His search for difference, in this case, instead yields both similarities and differences, as he first lists relatively common human desires--"Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life."--then more personal preferences--"I like a pipe for a Christmas present, / or records--Bessie, bop, or Bach." This recognition of commonality and separateness returns him once again to the assignment, as he asks, "So will my page be colored that I write?"
... Hughes suggests that the self, rather than being coherent and autonomous, is actually the effect of relationships.
Hughes provides the answer in the rest of the poem. But it is not a simple answer. His meditation on the assignment has led him to conclude that he is not one thing or another, but rather one thing and another. His black identity rests on the fact that there is also a white identity; his identity as a Southerner rests on the fact that there is a North; his identity as a student rests on the fact that there is a teacher; and his youth rests on the fact that there are those older than him. All of these relationships, Hughes suggests, not only help constitute the way that he thinks of himself, the image of himself that he carries around, but also the way that his teacher (and by implication, all human beings) thinks of himself.
For Hughes, this idea that the many are contained in the one is a common denominator of the American national identity. In this way he echoes the ideas of Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century American poet who regarded each individual as a microcosm of society and the universe. But rather than singing the praises of American democracy and equality as Whitman did, Hughes points out that although Americans' differences help form what they take to be their own "individual" identities, these differences also help to make some of these identities less equal than others: students are subordinate to teachers; whites are more privileged than blacks, etc. After acknowledging the ways in which his own identity informs his teacher's identity and vice versa, Hughes addresses his teacher, saying:
His hesitancy ("I guess you learn from me") and his claim that because his teacher is older and white, he is "somewhat more free" than him underscore the role that power plays in all of the relationships the poem explores. That Hughes (as student) feels "free" to write these things to his instructor demonstrates that to a certain extent he has managed to overcome (or at least challenge) the limitations of his various identities. In so doing, he has fulfilled the directions of the assignment to "let the page come out of you." Or has he?
By questioning his instructor's very directions, the student-speaker is questioning his instructor's authority. While some instructors might think this action shows independent thinking and reward the student for such an action, it isn't clear that this will be the case in this poem. Hughes's description of the situation and of the instructor suggest that the instructor is most likely fairly conventional in his thinking (consider the generic nature of the assignment and the fact that the student isn't certain that the instructor can learn anything from him). Rather than seeing this poem as an example of creative independent thinking, the instructor might very well punish the student both for challenging him and for writing a poem instead of an essay. Seen in this light the poem, then, becomes an act of rebellion--of questioning the instructor's very identity as teacher. Such a response would be ironic if we consider that the very act of writing the poem is a result of the power relationships that make the student who he is. More ironic still would be the teacher's blindness to the very relationships that also form him.