I think he's trying to say a few things:
- He's trying to say that at some level people of different races are not that different.
- But at the same time, he's not at all sure that what's true for him as a 22 year-old black person is the same as what's true for his older, white teacher.
- He's trying to say that white and black Americas (if they are separate things) are tied up with one another, somehow connected whether they want to be or not.
So if you look at all that, what is the overall message that Hughes is trying to get across?
I'd say that it is the message that race in this country is a difficult topic. It's hard to know where our similarities end and our differences begin.
I wonder what he would have written if he'd been half-white half not like me...
Part of what makes this poem so powerful is the idea that individuals play a vital role in constructing their own sense of reality. The opening lines or the assignment takes this to a simple, yet alarmingly complex, level. When the instructor asks the students to essentially construct truth, it is at this point where Hughes takes off in his exploration. Indeed, part of this journey is to articulate what it means to be black in the social setting of the time. Part of this is to go to a different home than others, a different part of town than others, and to sit in a college classroom while looking physically and experiencing reality metaphysically different than others. This construction of truth is undeniable. Yet, there are aspects within this experience where race is not the defining element to one's being. When the speaker articulates wanting a pipe or specific types of music, there is an amazingly complex truth present: Perhaps, it is not race that divides as much as class or cultural capital which is the demarcation. Few literary thinkers, and even fewer poets, have played with this like Hughes has. The convergence of race and class/ cultural capital is what helps the speaker define his level of truth as a complex one, where individuals face different concentric circles of experience and "truth."