I'm not a huge Langston Hughes fan--for the most part I think his work is too metrically and ideologically simple to be of much interest to me--but every now and then he hits on something of real substance and power. Such is the case with "Theme for English B," which I'm teaching in my Comp II class tomorrow.
The narrator’s professor’s paper prompt demands work based on personal identity, but Hughes rejects such a paradigm. His identity is too varied, too complex to come up with something “simple” (l. 6) to put down on the page. He defines himself in various ways—by his geography (ll. 7-16); by the activities he enjoys (ll. 22-23); by his possessions (ll.24-25); and most importantly, by his relationships with other people. He says he is “what / I feel and see and hear” (ll. 18-19), and what he hears, besides the sounds of the city, are the voices of the people around him. Thus, his identity is a rich mixture of things, influenced or perhaps created by everything with which he comes into contact.
But it is not even that simple. Hughes is not only defined by those around him; he also defines them in a sort of secular pantheism. He suggests that the races depend upon one another: “You are white— / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (ll. 32-34). His connection of his interconnectedness to those around him is an explicit acceptance of the 19th-century concept of the country as a “melting pot.” But he adds something to this—not only does the country become a mixture of racial and ethnic identities; each of us, individually, becomes such a mixture.
Nowhere is this more clear than in music. Hughes himself says that he likes “Bessie, bop, [and] Bach / I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like / The same things other folks like who are other races” (ll. 25-27). If anything, music has only become more mixed since Hughes’ time. White artists took the blues and mixed it with rock and country; black artists took rock music and made it into funk (“Who says a funk band can’t play rock?” asked Funkadelic); and rap artists took this funk and sampled it to make hip-hop. Then suburban white kids took that hip-hop and blasted it from their Honda Civics in the streets of Levittown and Englewood Cliffs.
And that Hughes sets forth his theory in a work of literature about a work of literature suggests that literature is and should be such a mixture. I am no scholar of the Harlem Renaissance, so I am not qualified to say whether or not the literature of the era exemplified Hughes’ racial pantheism, but it certainly does now. Witness, for example, Toni Morrison’s co-opting of William Faulkner’s technique in Paradise and A Mercy, or John Updike’s attempt at South-American-style magical realism in Brazil. Everything ends up as a mixture, and now, as numerous pundits have pointed out, we have a multiracial president, the product of an African father and a Kansan mother.
All of this is not to say that we live in a post-racial society. The nature of all of this, as Hughes suggests, is that we maintain our own ethnic identities even as we get defined by the other ethnicities around us. Hughes says that “you, me talk on this page” (l. 20); he suggests that the melting pot involves a conversation, and conversations by definition involve two parties, two individual personalities, however much they are created and defined by each other. Because of this (and because of man’s fallenness), we will always have racism, just as we will always have sexism. But perhaps Hughes’ vision of interdefinition is more true today than it has ever been—and it’s certainly more true of America than of any other Western countries, however much Europe is fond of criticizing us for our racism.