Here, our speaker enters the poem for the first time, and he does so debating the assignment. Have you ever gotten an assignment from a teacher or a professor that seems to oversimplify something—maybe, like the complicated concept of "truth"? If so, you were up against the same dilemma our speaker is up against now. That's a biggie!
The speaker wonders if it can be so simple that whatever you write, if it comes from inside, is true. Truth can be something as easy as "2 plus 2 equals 4," but more often it's something complex, such as, "I love my father, but I hate that he is mean when he drinks alcohol," or "I don't know whether or not I believe in God." Truth is generally hard to pin down, and far from simple, and the speaker seems to recognize that.
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
Now we get into the biological meat of the story. These are the facts about our speaker—perhaps, even, the simple truths. Yet these facts, when we look closely, tell us a lot about our speaker and his (we're assuming that it's a he) life.
We'll break it down: he's 22 years old. Today, that's the age when a lot of people graduate from college. It's often referred to as the "quarter-life crisis." At 22, our speaker is no longer a carefree youth, and he's a few years away from being a teenager. Maybe his friends are getting married, having kids, getting jobs and promotions. It seems like he's wondering what exactly his life is supposed to be, and what the years after 22 are going to look like. We know, at least, that our speaker is still in school, so we're guessing his education is going to play an important role in determining his future and his thoughts.
Then, our speaker says he's colored, or black. Being black back when this poem was published, in 1951, meant dealing with a lot of racism. In this era, before the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr., prejudice was rampant.
Last, we hear that the speaker was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home to Wake Forest University (go Demon Deacons!). So he's from the South—a stalwart hub of prejudice. So even though the rest of this poem talks a lot about New York, we can think of the speaker's knowledge of the South, and the discrimination he may have faced there.
Important note: This line is a big clue that our speaker is not Hughes, because Hughes was born in Missouri. So Hughes is giving us the words of another person—whether it's a real person that Hughes knew, or one that he made up, we can only guess. The main thing to remember here is that, contrary to what a lot of people say about this poem, it is definitely not part of Hughes' autobiography. This is why it's always, always important to make the distinction between the speaker of the poem and the poet who actually wrote it.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem.
Here, we're getting a brief overview of the speaker's educational background.
It's easy to just assume that the college mentioned is Columbia University, where Hughes studied. But, remember, this poem isn't in Hughes' voice. It's more likely that the school mentioned is the City College of New York, which is in fact on a hill in Harlem.
These lines tell us something else important about our speaker—he takes his education seriously, since he's stayed with it through multiple institutions.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The speaker is the only black person in his class—we're assuming that means his English B class, not his entire class at the college, but it could be either way.
It also means that he's willing to pursue an education even though it places him in the minority, which can be uncomfortable, especially back in 1951, when this poem was published.
This line brings race into the forefront of the poem, and gets us about thinking about race and identity, and how they relate to this idea of "truth."
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, the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
These lines show us the speaker's journey from his class back to his living quarters. Check out a map of Harlem to follow his journey.
The steps of his journey let us know for sure that he's talking about the City College of New York (just west of St. Nicholas and the park), and give us a little bit of the city flavor. His walk sounds like it's a good mix of park and street, and, like any walk of a few blocks, it probably gives him time to clear his head and think about his class, his life, and his world.
The "Y" that the speaker talks about is the Harlem YMCA. If you haven't been to a YMCA, think of it as kind of a community center. The Harlem Y, which is still around, serves as a hostel. Hostels are cheap places for people, particularly young people, to stay.
So that paints the image in our mind that our speaker probably doesn't have a ton of money. He sleeps and works in one room, and probably shares a bathroom with a whole bunch of people. Note that when we jump from line 14 to 15, we get a little bit of enjambment, a literary device in which there's a line split right smack in the middle of a thought. In this case, the line split helps break up the journey into small steps.
These lines take us with our narrator as he works his way back home from English B. While he's walking, he's thinking, and we're thinking with him. It's impressive that the first thing this 22-year-old does when he gets back to his room is sit down and write. How many young people do you know who would work on their homework right away, rather than put it off? It makes us wonder what the sources of our speaker's motivation could be. He clearly wants to get to work!
The details of this journey really help establish a setting (for more on that, check out the… Setting section), and literally, let us readers walk in the speaker's shoes.
Also notice the colon at the end of this line. Possibly, that means that the rest of the poem is the assignment—the page that's supposed to be true—and this part leading up to that was just the set up.