Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Poetry Tuesday: Langston Hughes

 

For those of you unfamiliar with Langston Hughes (1901-1967), I encourage you to peruse his rather large catalog of poetry, some of which is among the best America has to offer. Hughes was a product of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of artistic production from a variety of mediums centered in and around Harlem from around 1920 to the mid-1930s. He is often incorrectly pigeonholed as only a jazz poet. The truth is that he was incredibly versatile, penning works on history, culture, civil rights, universal truth, music, and relationships. His poetry certainly incorporates jazz elements, but he also owes a great deal to Walt Whitman in terms of style.

Early in his life, Hughes openly flirted with Communism as an alternative to segregated life in America. By late in his life, though, he had cooled on the notion of Communism as a solution to social problems, admitting that his fascination with it was largely a product of his emotions, not any particular understanding of political philosophy. (It’s worth noting that this admission severely hurt his reputation among the radical left). At his best, Hughes’ poetry celebrates Dr. King’s vision that the American dream is truly wonderful, so wonderful that it should be shared with every person of every race. I challenge you to read “Let America Be America Again“, “Theme for English B“, or “Night Funeral in Harlem” and not get a lump in your throat. His honest longing for the opportunity to fully join the American experience is both touching and powerful.

The poem I want to focus on today isn’t one of his most anthologized, but I think that it’s especially important to the times in which we now find ourselves. “Dinner Guest: Me” was published in 1965, a mere two years before Hughes’ death. It reflects the maturity of a writer that has experienced some of the highest and lowest times in the American experience. The specific topic of the poem is the speaker’s experience at a dinner party thrown by what we might call “limousine liberals.” The attitudes that were on display in the poem are incredibly relevant today.

“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, 1965

In the poem, Hughes expertly sets the scene: a single black dinner guest in a room full of upscale progressive whites. What follows is something of a dance, with the upscale Park Avenue set attempting to gingerly “probe” the speaker regarding racial issues. The attitudes of the hosts feel remarkably contemporary: white guilt, virtue signaling, fake solidarity. The speaker, we find, understands the motives of his host better than the hosts themselves. They simply don’t understand how painfully superficial and transparent they are. But the speaker does understand, understands that they regard him more as a “problem” than an equal. From their insulated perch on Park Avenue, far from the ghettos they pretend to care about, they flog themselves with feathers, pretending that their concern is genuine. Even in 1965, public professions of “white privilege” had little to do with improving the lives of black Americans and much more about assuaging the insecurities of upscale whites, whose dinner guest has only been invited as a credible witness to their ascension.

Hughes’ treatment of the subject is remarkably prescient and thoughtful. He sees through the pompous silliness of progressive racial politics and into the heart of those that pretend to care about him. In many ways, he is a precursor to the writings of Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, who also saw white guilt for what it really is: a sham.

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  1. Henry Castaigne Member

    He was excellent. It is always worthwhile to celebrate excellence. 

    • #1
    • July 1, 2020, at 9:35 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Jon Gabriel, Ed. King

    Fantastic poet and post. The poem reminded me of a wonderful, nearly unheard power-pop band, fronted by a brilliant African-American singer/lyricist named Stew.

    The band’s ironic name caused several problems with booking shows and getting airplay. Undeterred, Stew released acclaimed solo albums, won a Tony for a Broadway musical, and — most importantly — wrote “Gary’s Song” for SpongeBob SquarePants.

    • #2
    • July 1, 2020, at 11:52 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  3. danys Thatcher
    danys Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thank your posting this poem by Hughes. I was unfamiliar with it. Some topics/experiences are evergreen.

    • #3
    • July 1, 2020, at 11:58 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Manny Member

    Frankly I never thought Hughes was a major poet. I still don’t. The examples you provided were pretty mediocre. “Night Funeral in Harlem” is below mediocre. Don’t mean to be cruel but there are better black poets. 

    • #4
    • July 1, 2020, at 3:44 PM PDT
    • Like
  5. DanielDrummond Coolidge

    Thank you for highlighting this work by a wonderful poet who spoke to the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of all Americans.

    • #5
    • July 1, 2020, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 1 like