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The speaker in Langston Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me” finds himself the center of attention at a dinner party on Park Avenue.
The speaker deceptively sets the reader up in the first few lines of stanza one by using a rhyme scheme that suggests a slightly cavalier outlook on the evening ahead; he says, “I know I am / The Negro Problem / Being wined and dined” (lines 1-3). By using a mixture of alternating and repetitive end rhyme, in addition to the internal rhyme, the speaker’s rhythm and pace is initially quick and bright, immediately engaging the reader’s curiosity about what should prove to be an interesting evening.
The irony of the dinner party for the speaker is that he represents the black Problem, and he makes the point early on in the poem, that all of the other guests are white; nevertheless, the speaker is the main attraction at this lavish gathering, “Answering the usual questions / That come to white mind” (4-5).
The juxtaposition of the Problem as an invited guest, not to mention the primary focus of conversation, is something the speaker feels is not the norm; if the black Problem is present for a dinner party on this side of town, it would not be sitting at the dinner table; the Problem would be serving the dinner table.
The speaker in Langston Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me” uses personification and imagery to allow the reader to experience his bemusement and conflict as a black man partaking in what he believes to be a white man’s world on Park Avenue. The speaker’s use of personification in this poem is not immediately evident. However, a valid argument can be made that a black man is not literally present for this dinner party at all; the Problem of the black man and the plight of the black community is obviously the center of attention and the primary topic of discussion, but the Problem’s physical presence is not needed to capture this dialogue among the white dinner guests. Through his use of personification, the speaker is able to address the Problem of black culture, and its place in upper class white society, without actually having to be present himself.
Furthermore, the speaker’s ability to project the black man’s plight in to this racially exclusionary clique is a clever use of personification; by making the Problem come alive, the reader gets an insider’s view of how this white class of people views the issues facing black culture; in addition, personification offers the alternate view of how the black culture views itself in these same circumstances; sadly for the speaker, it appears that they all have the same opinion of the black Problem: “Solutions to the Problem, / Of course, wait” (22-23). By applying personification the speaker is able to reveal to the reader that, unfortunately, both factions agree on all points: the Problem is real; the Problem warrants discussion; but, the Problem is not a priority; therefore, the Problem can wait.
The speaker should be enraged by the apathy this statement evokes, but instead he concedes “To be a Problem on / Park Avenue at eight / Is not so bad” (19-21). Through effective use of personification we realize that the speaker likes being the thrust of the discussion, even if there is no solution in sight for the Problem. Additionally, the speaker’s persuasive use of imagery is palpable throughout the poem, especially as he describes the guests consuming lobster and fraises du bois [wild French strawberries] at a well-appointed dinner table, saying “I’m so ashamed of being white” (14). The speaker’s use of imagery here illustrates the stark dichotomy between the two races, and the real priority the Problem is, or is not, within both cultures. The white party goers ask among themselves, The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U.S.A.–
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night. (8-11)
The speaker allows us to feel the awkward approach of the white guests on the subject of black culture: the uneasy transition, almost tip-toeing around the topic, afraid to say too much. Then he turns around and relieves our anxiety by showing us how the Problem is enjoying being the center of attention, “At the damask table, mine” (18). The speaker’s narrative on imagery is used effectively by elaborating in great detail on the table coverings [Damask], the haute cuisine they are dining upon, and the specific location of Park Avenue. This is an intentional ploy by the speaker to elicit a clear-cut image of upper class white society where the black Problem should clearly feel out of place; there is only one problem for the Problem: he fits right in!
In conclusion, “Dinner Guest: Me” successfully uses personification and imagery to capture the reader’s imagination as the speaker attends a Park Avenue dinner party in upper class white society; the main topic of discussion for the evening is the issue of the black Problem. Although both groups, black and white, agree that there is a real Problem, no one is prepared for what the speaker reveals at the end of the poem; sitting around a dining room table on Park Avenue, “Over fraises du bois” (13), the Problem and white society do appear to agree on at least one thing: “Solutions to the Problem, / Of course, wait” (23). Furthermore, through the speaker’s creative use of personification and imagery the reader can conclude that the Problem and white society are more alike in their outlook on racial equality than either wants to admit. Therefore, the Problem has a problem: neither white party goer nor black Problem sees the need for any real urgency to address the issues “Of darkness U.S.A” (9).
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