New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse

By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula | Go to book overview

Rereading Langston Hughes: Rhetorical
Pedagogy in “Theme for English B,”
or the Harlem Renaissance in the
Composition Classroom

FRANK E. PEREZ

IN ONE RESPECT, INCLUDING AN ESSAY ON LANGSTON HUGHES’ POEM “Theme for English B” in a collection of essays whose theme is re-envisioning the Harlem Renaissance is somewhat odd since the poem was not published until 1949, well after the Harlem Renaissance ended. But in another respect, an essay about this poem fits perfectly within the theme of this collection in that the poem itself is a revisioning of one of Hughes’s experiences during the 1920s, specifically his experience as the only African American in an all-white composition course. Rereading the poem today, especially with an eye toward the rhetorical elements at work in the poem, brings into vision pedagogical possibilities that until recent decades were impossible to conceive. I refer specifically to the poem’s potential as an effective heuristic in the composition classroom.1

Before revisioning the poem in light of its rhetorical elements and its implications for the composition classroom, it is important to remember that the poem was originally Hughes’s own revisioning of his own college experience in the 1920s. Upon graduating from Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio in 1920, Hughes lived with his father in Mexico for a year and then entered Columbia University as a freshman in 1921. A year later he withdrew and worked several odd jobs until 1926, when he transferred to Lincoln College in nearby Pennsylvania, from which he was graduated in 1929. Arna Bontemps has noted that during his time at Lincoln, Hughes was keenly aware of the movement in Harlem and would often visit Harlem on weekends (Taylor, 95). It was during the 1920s that Hughes met such leading figures as Jessie Fauset, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cul-

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