The whole time you’ve been writing and thinking ocean because it is unknown, because it’s your life. Because you have the brightest terror, like following a white feather into the street. You want it so badly. Would you call that desire? Would you call it love? When you can’t see your legs because of the dark. But did you want to see what was happening? Every life form skidded by. The human products bobbing and sinking. Was that seaweed, we always said it was. The helicopter above seemed to be going somewhere but then it just cycled around the clouds. You thought of churning butter, street crimes, richness, fame. What small dot were you to the motor in the air, only human because of your lack of grace, your head that needed to be above to live. A shape inside the shapeless. Not able to rid shape. Even when brought under, the shape stays, though flattened. The eel is the snake and the manta ray the bat. Transformations in the underworld proliferate and you are unable to stand on your head or hold your sister. Your skin wears the same dint with cosmetics. Your blink, that fear, displaced, running.

Copyright © 2022 by Jennifer Firestone. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 12, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

The instructor said,

    Go home and write
    a page tonight.
    And let that page come out of you—
    Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
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:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. 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?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Knopf and Vintage Books. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.