Languston Hughes

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Dinner Guest: Me
I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To Probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U.S.A.--
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night,
Murmuring gently
Over fraises du bois,
"I'm so ashamed of being white."

The lobster is delicious,
The wine divine,
And center of attention
At the damask table, mine.
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem,
Of course, wait. 
Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a black American poet, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. This poem deals with subtle, complex issues of race relations in 20th-century U.S. culture. Unless you know a lot about U.S. racial history -- two and a half centuries of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow, different racial attitudes in different parts of the country -- it's virtually impossible to understand what Hughes is getting at in this poem.

Basically, the speaker of the poem is a black American who is an honored guest at a New York City banquet where most or all of the other people at the table are white Americans. The whites are all being polite. They all think of themselves as anti-racist. But because white and black historical experiences in America are so radically different, there's a lot that the white folks just don't get. The black speaker muses that white cluelessness is actually a big improvement over white hatred, but that "the Problem" of America's troubled racial history is still a long way from being solved.

Langston Hughes was born in 1902. He was a poet, playwright and social activist. He was also Black. This poem talks about being hosted by rich white folks in their swanky home (remember the time in our history when this was occurring!), having a polite racial discussion, sensing their tenseness of being white and feeling quite awkward about entertaining this man in...
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