What does the poem "Dinner Guest: Me" by Langston Hughes mean?
This dinner party seems to be a relatively commonplace occurrence for the African American speaker: "Being wined and dined, / Answering the usual questions / That come to white mind." He answers the usual questions from the white audience who seeks to understand "darkness U.S.A." The speaker himself is like a curiosity, a prophet, asked to speak on behalf of an entire race of people to help explain "how things got this way." The white people in attendance at this dinner seem well-meaning, at least for this one "democratic night," but the speaker understands that they think of him, or at least what do to with his blackness, as a "Problem."
At this dinner, with the well-meaning but nevertheless harm-causing white audience, the speaker, a person of color, becomes the "center of attention." However, he knows that all the talk is, ultimately, for nothing; these individuals seem to want to discuss the "Problem" of race-relations, but they do not seem to feel compelled to discuss any solutions. They, perhaps, feel they do enough to be "'ashamed'" of their whiteness, but they do nothing to actually make life better for persons of color. In the end, then, the poem's purpose seems to be to point out the way conversations about race so often go between whites and persons of color: whites profess guilt about their privilege but do nothing to actually dismantle the racism institutionalized in our government, schools, workplaces, and so on.
During the Harlem Renaissance, it became fashionable for the wealthy whites of New York to visit The Cotton Club and other such jazz and blues establishments. This merging of the rich in an area where they hitherto would not have ventured brought to their consciousness "the Negro Problem" that there were many black people who had moved to New York.
Since it was considered fashionable to go to the Harlem nightclubs, it also became fashionable to talk of this awareness of the influx of African-Americans from the South. However, as Hughes portrays in his poem, it is only dinner conversation "in current democratic night"--the daytime would return things to the status quo of separation of black from white. As the guests eat wild strawberries which are also imported for the dinner [the correct phrase is fraises des bois, so perhaps Hughes puns upon the name W.E.B. Du Bois here], there is little reality to this conversaion on Park Avenue as one guests observes, "I'm so ashamed of being white" as the appropriate and polite thing to say for this "democratic night."
Even the poet realizes that he is the curiosity for the night, "the center of attention," at least the "Problem" has been brought up. And, perhaps, the next step is a "Solution." It will, however, have to wait some time as people now just complacently return to the security of their wealth and social status.