illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Start Free Trial

What is the meaning of Langston Hughes' poem "Dinner Guest: Me"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this poem, the speaker is describing the uncomfortable mood at the dinner table where an apparently liberal white person is befriending him, or at least making a show of doing so. There is obviously something artificial and condescending about the "host" or hosts who are questioning him about "the Negro Problem."

Hughes's point, I would argue, is that even in situations where white Americans attempt to demonstrate their lack of prejudice, they end up showing how little they understand the feelings of African Americans. A much more extreme case of this occurs in Richard Wright's Native Son, when Mary and Jan, in appearing to befriend Bigger, do it in such a clueless manner that Bigger inwardly seethes, wishing that the three of them, driving in the car, will be blotted out of existence by some outside force.

The title of Hughes's poem is significant. Many whites, even those who are not overtly racist and who have good intentions, appear to treat African Americans as outsiders or "guests" in this country, as if they are not really a part of America. The last line is especially poignant, because those who represent the establishment, then and unfortunately still today, often seem to perceive that there is something wrong with the whole system but do nothing to correct it, apart from telling black people that, in the vague and uncertain future, change will occur. In other words, white people tell black people to just "wait," as the speaker sadly but unsurprisingly observes.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial