I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem. (7)
Our speaker is as American as it gets. He's young, born in the South, and struggling to rise up against the odds of his skin color in a racist era. He's undertaking the great American identity quest as his race slowly struggles towards equality. And important to his identity as a young American man is both his skin color and the place where he was born: Winston-Salem, a small city in North Carolina.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem. (8-9)
The speaker is letting us know which parts of America he's from as he introduces himself in this poem. Durham, a city not too far from Winston-Salem in North Carolina, was surely quite different from Harlem, a hustling, bustling center of culture—especially African American culture. This speaker has lived in both the South, which, historically, is the hub of slavery and racism, and the North, which was the land of the abolitionists, and largely more liberal. The tension between the North and the South is important to American history and culture, and our speaker invokes this tension in the poem by telling us about his schooling down South as well as his life now in Harlem.
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, (11-13)
This part of the poem is practically a scenic tour through one part of America: Harlem. We walk with our speaker across a park and through the streets of New York. Then we end up in something else quite American: the YMCA. Our speaker has a simple room, in the middle of a thriving city, living cheaply, being young, and beating the pavement back and forth from his college class. Learning and living in spare surroundings in order to succeed—well, that sounds pretty American to us.
[…] 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? (17-20)
This is more than a vision of America—it's the sounds and feelings of America, particularly New York City. Our speaker says that he feels like he's in conversation with his surroundings, involved in the sights and sounds of Harlem as the sights and sounds of Harlem are involved in him. He feels Harlem, sees it, hears it, and he knows it feels him, too. This relationship with his environment may not be particular to America, but New York is a great American city, the first stopping-off point for many immigrants, and an essential part of the American dream for many people.
You are white— yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That's American. (31-33)
Here, the speaker comes straight out and lets us know that he's talking about American culture. This section says, yes, the races might not get along, and there may be tension around every corner, but hey, we're American, and thus, are involved in each other's lives and cultures. After all, America is known as "The Melting Pot": a country of immigrants, with cultures from around the world mixing together. Yet, there's also an alternative expression—that America is a "tossed salad," or a country of many cultures that remain their own distinct traits and societies. How do you think these two visions of America relate to the America of this poem?
Although you're older—and white— and somewhat more free. (39-40)
As vibrant and thriving and full of sounds and life and truth and sharing as America seems in this poem, not all is well in the land of the brave and home of the free. In fact, these lines point out, the truth of the matter is that some Americans are more free than others. This was especially true when this poem was published in the 1950s, and black people were still segregated and systematically discriminated against by white citizens and the white government. Its founders foreswore that all men were created equal and that every man has rights, so America, especially in the '50s, was not a leader in equality, but a leader in hypocrisy.