Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
- This line is the beginning of the answer to the question in line 20. At a very simple level, the speaker is answering the question of who he is with what he likes.
- Unsurprisingly, he likes to do simple things, which a lot of people like to do. Do you know anyone who doesn't like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love? Yet, at the same time, the inclusion of being in love—note that it's placed last in the line, in a place of prominence as the last thing we read—makes this line more than just a statement of some basic things people like to do. It make the speaker very human, and makes us wonder who the speaker might be in love with.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
- This line continues the list of the things the speaker likes. He likes things that you would expect a student like him to enjoy—reading, learning, and working. It sounds like this is the kind of person who would be pretty easily satisfied with life.
- These things might not be enjoyed by everyone, though, because not everyone likes to work, read and learn. And sure, we'd all like to understand life, but there are people out there who are satisfied with a basic explanation of things, or who don't mind not thinking too much about bigger things than everyday life.
- So this line lets us know that our speaker is a thinker. He likes to be intellectually stimulated, and wouldn't like to just live with no questions asked. And he probably genuinely enjoys his studies, which is, perhaps, why he persists in his studies even though he is the sole black person in a class of white people.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
- Now we get down to specifics. The speaker is painting us a picture of his personality. He's telling us what he likes to get at Christmas—something simple, like a pipe, or some records.
- A pipe might seem kind of weird to a modern reader, but back when this poem was published, that would have been a perfectly normal gift, and smoking a pipe a fairly normal habit.
- The records are kind of funny, because the ones he names that he might like to receive vary widely. Bessie Smith was a famous blues singer, bop was a popular kind of jazz, and Bach was a classical composer. So this line goes from modern to ancient pretty quickly, letting us know that our speaker is well-educated musically, or he at least has a broad appreciation for music. Also note the use of alliteration in line 24—all three of these musicians' names start with the letter b. The line is fun to read aloud, bouncing along in its musical way. (For more on the sound of the poem, check out the "Sound Check" section.)
- We also get the detail that our speaker is Christian here, or at least, he grew up in a Christian family that celebrated Christmas. And we know that his family probably has enough money to buy some simple presents, but probably not a whole lot of money, because the presents aren't sports cars or new yachts or anything like that.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
- Here, we move from specifics to general. The speaker goes back to talking about being colored, or black. Remember from line 10 that he's the only black person in his whole class.
- In these lines, he's thinking, hey, black people and white people like the same sorts of simple things. So do people of any race and color. Liking the same thing is a symbol of common humanity. It may seem weird now, but common humanity wasn't so easily established in Hughes' lifetime, when prejudice ran rampant and blacks were looked down on by many as different, other than themselves.
So will my page be colored that I write?
- Now the speaker jumps off from his realization that he is connected to people of all races simply through liking things everyone likes, such as eating and sleeping.
- So he's wondering if the page that he writes for his assignment will be colored. Normally, colored in this poem can be switched out with the word black, or African-American. Here, we're not so sure. First, there's the difference between a blank, white page, and a page that perhaps has several colors of ink. Then there's the difference between a page that was written by a white person, and a page that was written by a black, or "colored," person. The word "colored" is integral to the wordplay here.
- Yet, the speaker isn't sure if his page will be different. He's wondering about the difference between art and literature produced by black and white people, he's wondering about the differences in the lives of black and white people. And if we remember that he's supposed to be writing this page to get closer to an inner truth, we also realize that he's wondering if there are differences in the truth for black and white people. If so, how might that difference affect, or "color," the way black and white people see the world and express their views—say, in an English paper.