Minority voices and the ‘Problem’

This week in ModPo I have been introduced to, moved and disturbed by Langston Hughes’ poem, – Dinner Guest: Me. Langston Hughes was a Harlem Renaissance anti-modernist poet. Dinner Guest: Me is a compelling poem. At one level it looks so simple; at another it is clearly anything but.


 Source of image

Langston Hughes, “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.

This poem was written in the context of a long history of racism in the USA, a system of racial subordination commonly known as Jim Crow and the question posed by African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois – ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’.

In the poem, Langston Hughes, a negro poet is at a ‘high society’ dinner party where all the other guests are white people. He knows that despite the ‘polite talk’ he is perceived as the Negro Problem – not necessarily hated, but a problem with a capital P.

I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be in this position, but the poem does raise the question of whether and how a minority voice can be heard. Langston Hughes was wined and dined at a ‘society’ dinner, but still his voice was not heard.

This situation was even more appalling because the dinner hosts seemed to have the best of intentions ‘in their terms’, but did not seem to recognise that they had all but ‘silenced’ the minority voice.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 18.00.29

Source of image

 The issue of the minority voice is not only a racial issue. It can be seen everywhere and in any situation where alternative perspectives are not welcomed or listened to. This is particularly disheartening when it happens in learning communities and even more disheartening when there appears to be a lack of awareness or concern for those who have been ‘silenced’.

This is a significant problem for open online learning. How do we know whether the voices being heard, i.e. those that are present, are representative of the wider community? How do we know how many people feel their voices have been silenced? Where does the Problem lie?

4 thoughts on “Minority voices and the ‘Problem’

  1. hrheingold October 11, 2014 / 9:12 pm

    Online, silence is invisible. Online community is built from the words of people who participate. Those who are silent are inevitable and welcome, but if they want to shape the conversation, they have to converse. People can be silenced by criticism, but I seriously wonder whether it is possible to be silenced because other people are participating. Sure, it is sometimes necessary to provide critical feedback through backchannels to organizers/moderators, and it is important to organizers/moderators to listen to and address that feedback. But if you want to alter the one of a conversation, especially online, your odds of success go up a millionfold if you participate in it.

  2. Vanessa Vaile October 12, 2014 / 3:54 am

    Silence may be invisible but when the result of having one’s voice usurped (or discounted) by others (not quite the same as just choosing not to participate) can also be palpable. Over the past I’ve taught Langston Hughes poems to very different groups This thoughtful one is a favorite but I hadn’t revisited it for some time and appreciate reading it again.

    The same question Hughes raises, different context and phrasing, is still being asked. The current round questions the right of the voices that Hughes reports to speak for the “Problem” (indeed posits that they, not he, are the real problem).

    I now read this poem in the context of Tressie MC’s and Chaucey de Vega’s blogs, respectively http://tressiemc.com/ and http://www.chaunceydevega.com/

  3. jennymackness October 13, 2014 / 11:14 am

    Hi Howard – thanks so much for your thought-provoking comments, which I have been thinking about for a couple of days.

    I completely agree with your first two sentences. Yes, online silence is invisible, as is body language from which we can learn so much. I always used to say to my online students, if you don’t tell me what your problem is, then I can’t help you, giving them the option to do this through private channels.

    And I agree that ‘Online community is built from the words of people who participate’, although this begs two questions, 1) Does everyone engage in online activity for the purpose of being a member of a community, or do many simply want to join a network? 2) If it is community that you want, then how can we be sure that the community is one that values ‘minority voices’? The word ‘community’ doesn’t equate by default to a ‘healthy’ learning environment. As Etienne Wenger has pointed out, some communities can be dysfunctional. But these are asides from the main point about whether online voices can be silenced.

    You have written: ‘People can be silenced by criticism…’ My response to this is that ‘Yes, people can be silenced by criticism’, but would this be the case if we exchanged criticism for rational critical discourse? I see your comments here as an example of the latter rather than the former. (Thank you for that.) As I think Mariana said in a blog post http://marianafun.es/ct101/2014/10/07/reflection-3-your-stalker-my-friend/, we need more skills in rational critical discourse to ensure that minority voices are not ignored, summarily dismissed without critique, or attacked.

    Then you write ‘but I seriously wonder whether it is possible to be silenced because other people are participating.’ I think there is plenty of evidence that people can be silenced by other people participating. If a minority voice is consistently ignored, or alternatively patronised or attacked, then it is likely to become silent. We have recently seen this in the case of Kathy Sierra and Julie Pagano. These are high profile figures, but I think we can be fairly sure that people will drop out of online communities, or open courses, if they can’t make their voice heard. How many times have you heard the complaint, no one responds to my blog posts?

    And I don’t think the answer is to shout louder. It is a question of ‘who’ is the Problem, ‘where’ is the Problem’. I don’t know what the answer is, but history suggests that in some circumstances underground resistance and subversion might be a response. I have wondered whether Langston Hughes’ poem was an attempt at subversion, i.e. not a direct, head-on attack.

    Finally you have mentioned providing critical feedback to moderators through back channels, but isn’t this against the spirit of openness that you mention. Isn’t this simply driving the meaningful conversations into the backchannel. The interesting thing is that I am increasingly finding that my most meaningful conversations do not happen in the open and on reflection, maybe it has always been like this.

    So I’m not sure that I agree that ‘if you want to alter the one of a conversation, especially online, your odds of success go up a millionfold if you participate in it.’ I don’t go online to ‘alter the conversation’. I go to learn and as Ronald Barnett says, the will to learn is ‘fragile’.

  4. jennymackness October 13, 2014 / 11:15 am

    Thank you Vanessa for adding your voice to this discussion. How interesting that you have read, studied and taught Langston’s poem. I found it very useful to prompt my thinking about how voices are ‘heard’, in particular minority voices, and to think about how we identify the Problem. Thanks for sharing Tressie MC’s and Chaucey de Vega’s blogs. I shall enjoy following them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s