The premise behind this poem is that the speaker is a black college student whose instructor has given his students an assignment to write a paper about themselves. While the poem takes the reader through his walk home from class and his thought process about “who he is”, the final line of the poem, “This is my page for English B” (ll. 41) suggests that this poem is the paper he has written for class.
Langston Hughes wrote this poem during the Harlem Renaissance of the late 1910s, so a reader might immediately assume that the main topic involves race or racial prejudice. The second stanza almost takes this direction when the speaker mentions that he is “the only colored student in [his] class” (ll. 10). The third stanza changes directions, though, when the speaker, addressing his white instructor, says, “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (ll. 25-26). This suggests that he is not, because he is black, different than others, but rather, the same. White people might think that his preferences are different, but they are actually similar.
Asking “So will my page be colored that I write” (ll. 27) is a creative play on his identity that will come across in the paper he will write for class; will it reflect his “blackness”?, he wonders. It “will not be white” (ll. 28) he knows, since he is not, but it will partially reflect his instructor, the one who gave the assignment. After all, both he and his instructor are human (“yet a part of me, as I am a part of you” (ll. 32)). As the poem closes, the speaker draws his conclusions about his own racial identity: he no more wants to be white than his white instructor wants to be black, but there is no denying the similarity between them. He’ll learn from the instructor (“As I learn from you”(ll. 37)) but the instructor will also learn from him (“I guess you learn from me” (ll. 38)). Perhaps he thinks the instructor does not understand what it’s like to be black.
A quick scan through the lines of this poem reveals the frequent use of the words “I”, “me”, and “you”, which are a clue for the poem’s overall theme: should one find his identity through his race, or through ordinary, everyday elements, likes and dislikes, enjoyable pastimes and perceptions of life? In lines 6-15 alone, the word “I” is used to ask questions, tell his age, race, and birthplace, his college, and route home to the Harlem Branch YMCA. This is how he identifies himself outwardly to others. The third stanza uses “I” and “me” to compare himself to “you”, the instructor. The speaker identifies himself with Harlem in the lines which read “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” (ll.17-19).
Many black people during this time were inspired by Harlem’s empowerment of their community. Having a black heritage was seen as positive and black poets, musicians and authors thrived in Harlem. The speaker has likely been encouraged by living in Harlem, and therefore sees his black identity in direct contrast to “you”, the white identity of his instructor. He’s not entirely sure, though, because the short line “Me – who?” (ll. 20) indicates that his identity isn’t clear to him, or maybe to whites. The fourth stanza’s conclusion about this issue recognizes that to allow blacks to be proud of their heritage is “American” (ll. 33).
While this poem doesn’t seem to make use of specific figurative language, there is one instance of alliteration which makes a neat point. In the third stanza, the speaker points out the things he enjoys that help to identify him, including “records – Bessie, bop, or Bach” (ll. 24). This intentional alliteration identifies three different types of music: a jazz vocalist (Bessie Smith), the bop genre, and Bach (classical), to point out that even a black man whose culture strongly identifies with jazz and bop music, can like classical music which is often associated with white culture. The alliteration serves to highlight the “sameness” of these three, all of which he likes, but their difference lies in their cultural associations.
Although there is no specific rhyme scheme, internal rhyme throughout and the rhyme at the end seem intentional. The internal rhyme has an almost sing-song sound to it, and provides a beautiful flow from line to line. In lines 16-17, the rhyme of “true”, “you” and “two” and the enjambment of the lines seems to ask the question “what is true of ‘you’ and me”? This same rhyme patter is repeated in the fourth stanza in lines 35-36, “Nor do I often want to be a part of you. / But we are, that’s true!”. This seems to answer the question: the common factor between “you” and “me” is that we are part of each other, “that’s true!”.
As the speaker comes to this decision in the end, the tone is final and the end rhyme becomes even, as though his decision is final and right. He says “I guess you learn from me – / although you’re older – and white – / and somewhat more free. / This is my page for English B”. The rhyme of “me”, “free” and “B” suggest an answer to his question: the instructor will learn from him, although it will not immediately change the identity of any person, white or black.
This is one of my favorite poems because of its rhythm and rhyme. Lines like “Harlem, I hear you: / hear you, hear me – we two – you, me” (ll. 18-19) and the last four have a rhythm like music and the words just flow from my mouth as I read them. They’re short and simple, but pack such a powerful punch. And while I cannot identify with the racial divide so present in this poem, I like to think about how being white is assumed, and being black is not. It was probably such a simple assignment for the professor to give, yet how many of the white students would have written about being “white”? And does the speaker think that the instructor will expect him to write about being black? And will his paper reflect being black or will it be just as “white” as the others? Hughes makes a play on this concept with the line “So will my page be colored that I write?” (ll. 27). For me, this poem is easy to understand but not overly simplified. The concept is a complex one, but is presented in a way that makes it seem like a neat little package.