Langston Hughes’s Birthday

langston-hughesToday, Feb. 1, is Langston Hughes’ birthday. I think he is one of America’s greatest poets, and I have always enjoyed his poetry. Even though he lived most of his life in New York, he was born not far from the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry, in Joplin Missouri, a town just across the border about 90 minutes away.

I appreciate his spare use of language, crisp diction, honest and straightforward way of describing his experience and the complicated, diverse, and inevitably beautiful world that he found around him.

When I was a high school teacher, I would have students write a poem similar to his “Theme for English B.” Write about your life, what you know, what touches you. Write about the things that define you, even if it seems unpoetic, even if it hurts, even if you don’t want a soul to know what really goes on inside of you.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hughes. Your poetry still thrives.

Theme for English B

–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

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