Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Theme for English B
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.
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.
The persona is a negro student (the only one in his class) who is given an assignment by his instructor write a page that comes from within him, and is therefore 'true'. He is 22 and lives in Harlem. He now puzzles over what is 'true' for any person. The persona questions who he is. The introduction of the concept of truth is strange for him as a black man given this assignment by a white instructor. He recounts his own tastes- a mixture of things liked by different people of different races. This brings to light a dilemma within him; an uncertain relationship between race and identity. He now sees that his race doesn't define his tastes, He ponders whether his race affects his identity, and therefore, if it will affect the identity of truth he presents on his page. He knows that it is important to his identity, but, through his realization that his tastes are unaffected by race, he knows that it doesn't define his identity. The persona boldly now asserts that he and his instructor are part of one another. Their history, and evidently American societal bonds between them, form a deep connection. He knows now that his race is not what defines his identity, nor is it an intimate determiner of who he is. Instead, race seems a sort of encumbrance, or burden, which is why he knows that his instructor may not often want to be a part of him. However, this connection that pervades age, race and gender is undeniable. As the only coloured student in his class, he obviously experiences a great deal of alienation and may feel out of place. In spite of this, they are linked, and they learn from each other. The persona knows that his race can be a burden that limits him, and he also knows that his instructor is somewhat more free than he is- simply because he is white.
This all shows the true message of the poem- the fact that race and the unequal distribution of privilege based on race is not what defines them, it simply obscures the deep connections between them.
The themes of this poem include race and identity. The tone is reflective, and the mood is also thoughtful/pensive.
"The instructor said,
Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you— Then, it will be true."
The poem begins with a direct quote from the persona's instructor giving the directions for the assignment. He says that the page written must 'come out' of the student and then it would be 'true.' This introduces the idea of truth, and how this relates to the persona himself,
"I wonder if it’s that simple?"
The persona's dilemma begins with the use of a rhetorical question. He wonders if his page will be true simply because he writes directly from his heart. He doubts the simplicity of the instructor's directions.
"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."
This is a short biography of the persona's life. He is 22 and coloured (black) and has moved between places and schools throughout his life. Now he is at a college situated above the town of Harlem. The location of the college above Harlem could be seen as representative of the prestige of the college.
"I am the only colored student in my class."
The persona gives more details, showing that he is the only student of colour in his class. This indicates that he possibly feels alienated or out of place in his class as a result.
"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:"
Our persona travels home through this convoluted set of directions and comes to the Harlem Y, or the Harlem YMCA which is a community center and a cheap hostel for young people to stay. This tells us a little about the speaker's likely low income. He begins the page as soon as he gets to his room, and the stanza ends with a colon showing that the following lines will be the assignment.
"It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me at twenty-two, my age."
This calls back the assignment's instructions, which state 'Let that page come out of you, then it will be true.' So, the persona is grappling with the idea of what is true- he finds it quite difficult to discern truth, especially at his age. Even though he is an adult, he has many more years ahead of him to live, and he cannot be completely sure of what is true, even if it comes from his heart.
"But I guess I’m what I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you. I hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page. (I hear New York, too.) Me—who?"
Continuing in this vein of uncertainty, he assumes that he is a product of what he feels, sees and hears- his environment. He lives in Harlem, so it must be a part of his identity. He personifies Harlem by saying that he talks with it on his page. He hears Harlem, and he hears its people, as they are a part of him. But he also hears New York, a sort of diverse hub of people from all parts of the world. He ends the stanza by asking 'me-who?' questioning his own identity, and what is true for him.
"Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. I like to work, read, learn, and understand life."
He begins to list his tastes- of course he likes things that normal people regardless of race would like. They are simple things, showing that, yes, he is in fact a human. He also likes to work, read, learn and understand life, showing that he is both an thinker and a hard worker.
"I like a pipe for a Christmas present, or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach."
He likes simple gifts (at the time of the writing of this poem, smoking was considered normal and somewhat classy). The poet uses alliteration with "Bessie, Bop or Bach" to show the persona's taste in music. Bessie, an allusion to blues singer Bessie Smith and Bop, a genre of music- both very popular among the African American community. Bach, as in the classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, may have been considered more popular for white people. So, the persona has a wide span of musical tastes .
"I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like the same things other folks like who are other races."
At this point, the persona realizes that his race doesn't affect his identity, his personality. Being coloured doesn't define him as a person; he can share likes and dislikes with others regardless of race.
"So will my page be colored that I write? Being me, it will not be white."
The persona now knows that his race isn't a determiner of his tastes. However, he now has a new dilemma: will what he writes be distinctly 'coloured' (i.e. black)? The purpose of the assignment is to find and express an inner truth. The persona doesn't know if there is a difference between inner truth for a coloured person or a white person. If there truly is a distinct difference between that which is produced by black people or white people, will what he writes be different because he is black? He acknowledges that due to his race, his page cannot possibly express the views of a white person or their experiences. This line can operate on another level as well, indicating that being himself, he would complete the assignment, so his page wouldn't be white (blank). However,it also introduces the idea of the page being him. The page comes from within him, so in a way, it is him and therefore cannot be white. While race doesn't define his identity, it is an indelible phenotype that affects his experiences.
"But it will be a part of you, instructor."
The persona boldly states that what he writes will be a part of his instructor. This could indicate that it becomes a part of his instructor when he reads it, but it could also mean that their experiences and views, despite being of different races, are a part of each other.
"You are white— yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s American."
The instructor is white, and he is black, but they are interconnected, or linked. This sentiment of deep connection is described as American by the persona. America is often called the 'salad bowl,' a mixture of people from all different cultures and races to create something uniquely 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!"
The persona knows the hardships that come with the burden of being black, especially in a prejudicial America full of racial discrimination- so he acknowledges that the instructor may not always like the idea of them being intertwined. He is evidently hesitant in stating this, as seen in the use of 'sometimes perhaps.' However, it is all wrapped up with the affirmative declaration that 'that's true!' once again calling us back to the assignment that indicates the function of the assignment to come closer to an inner truth. This declaration that he and his instructor are part of each other whether or not they want to be is 'true.'
"As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me—"
As the persona learns from the instructor, he tentatively says that he learns from him as well, reinforcing the idea of interconnection even in a classroom setting.
"although you’re older—and white— and somewhat more free. This is my page for English B."
The declaration of them learning from each other is followed by the acknowledgement of inherent prejudices and difference in privilege between them. The instructor is older, and is more free than the persona simply due to him being white. The final declaration of the poem is 'this is my page for english B,' giving the final indication of the truth of the persona. This is the page that comes from within himself, and what, therefore, must be true.