Following Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” by Reid Mitchell

I said

Go home and copy
THEME FOR ENGLISH B
It’s a starting place for you.
See if you can make it true

It is an assignment I do not like to do
myself, but it is also a debt I owe
to Wei Fang and Ting Ting. Hughes as well
I suppose

I am fifty-six, white if that still means anything
and sad to say I think it does, raised in New Orleans.
I went to school there, then Virginia, then California
Now I teach in this college in Fujian

I live with other foreign teachers, also white
some old, some young, mostly American
When I leave campus, I get stares.
Stares sometimes when I walk down student street
or even through the university grounds
although white faces on campus are common

You probably think it is easier to know my truth
at fifty-six my age. But if I’m what I feel and see
and hear and eat in Quanzhou, I am Fujian
talking to Ting Ting and Wei on this page, and I am
writing in a once-white now multi-hued language,
and because I am writing the words of Langston Hughes
and I am from New Orleans, and because I grew up in America,

I am also black
I can repeat many of the sentiments
of a twenty-two year old college student, in 1924 or 1949
and even 2011. “I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love
I like to work, read, learn.” I learned I will never
understand life, not completely. So I understand life
more at age fifty six than I did at forty-four, or thirty-three,
or twenty-two

I don’t even write on a page, I write on a screen

You are Chinese–
“yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.” That’s the world,
like it or not. Every day my students make me
a little more Chinese and I make them a little more American,
but there are more of you than they are of me

“As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—”
although you’re younger—and Han—
and somewhat more at home

This is my page for Wei Fang, Ting Ting,
and Langston Hughes

Reid Mitchell earned his PhD in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Civil War Soldiers and other work on the American Civil War.

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