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When Langston Hughes was just seventeen years old, he famously composed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” On his way to visit his father in Mexico, he was traveling by train as it crossed the Mississippi River. The poem has since grown in popularity and is one of his most frequently cited works. It served as motivation for other writers and artists who also portrayed Black tenacity and fortitude using the picture of the river.
About the poet
American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and journalist James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. Hughes is most recognized for being a founder of the Harlem Renaissance and for being one of the first pioneers of the literary genre known as jazz poetry.
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes addresses issues of identity and tenacity. These two subjects appear frequently in Hughes’ poetry. He frequently draws attention to the history of Black people in America and the hardships that Black men and women have had as a result of enslavement and prejudice over the years. The poem boldly and unequivocally states that Black lineage is powerful, enduring, and deserving of celebration. The speaker, who serves as a metaphor for all Black men and women whose power has been repressed, spends the majority of the poem sharing their experiences throughout time.
I've known rivers: I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The speaker uses a lot of repetition at the beginning of the poem. The first-person narrator quickly brings up the title of this composition. Given that “I” is the one who refers to “rivers,” it is safe to presume that the speaker is black. In the first words, it is stated that he has “known” rivers in addition to speaking of them now and in the future. This phrase construction is odd. Personification is employed in this passage to let the reader better understand the speaker’s reality. He got so near to these bodies of water that he got to know them like you would know a friend.
“I’ve known rivers” from the opening line is repeated at the start of the second line. He has knowledge of rivers that are “as old as the planet,” not just any rivers. These waterways have played a significant role throughout earth’s history. Eventually, they appeared to humanity as well. The pre-human activity that occurred before humans became the dominant species on the globe takes precedence over the human aspect of the landscape. The claim that the water in the rivers is older than the “flow of human blood in human veins.” emphasizes this.
These earthly characteristics are valued higher than the future owners, humans. The speaker’s spirit has “grown deep like the rivers,” according to the last few sentences of this section. It has adopted a lengthy history, complex layers, and movement through a landscape of rivers. His soul is comparable to the oldest and longest rivers. This will have an impact on the following stanza, in which he transitions across a large number of years.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
The speaker lists a number of rivers that he visited and got to know in the following set of lines. Readers should pay attention to the four lines in this paragraph that start with “I.” The first four are where the speaker tells his life narrative as he travels from the Euphrates to the “Mississippi.”
The “Euphrates” River, which flows through the south of Turkey and into Iraq, is the first location he introduces the reader to. It is among the longest on the entire planet. This body of water has a long mythological and historical background. On its banks, the city of Babylon is said to have been built. It frequently has ties to the Tigris. They formed the Tigris-Euphrates river system as a whole. He first encountered the young “dawns” here. This alludes to the beginning of time or at the very least the dawn of civilization as we know it.
The reader is then taken to the “Congo” by the speaker. He is referring to the Congo River, which is the second-longest river in Africa. It passes through the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola, which are all separate nations. It’s simple enough to understand this line. On its banks, he erected his hut, and he let it lull him to sleep. This is a really personal way of getting to know a river. In that sense, every interaction he has with each of these bodies of water is comparable. He is intimately acquainted with them.
The longest river in the world, the “Nile,” is discussed in the following paragraphs. In northern Africa, it travels north to south. He was working on the pyramids and could be seen gazing “upon the Nile” at the time. This categorically placed him among the slaves or peasants who served the Egyptian pharaohs. The Nile provides much of the region with life in addition to the wonder of the pyramids. He is positioning himself in accordance with the most significant natural aspects of his numerous eras.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
He then shifts to more recent history and the “Mississippi” River. While “Abe Lincoln / went down to New Orleans,” he was listening to the Mississippi River. This alludes to a specific journey that Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, made. He steered a boat along the river when he was a young man. He got his first taste of what slavery was like thanks to this. One of the biggest markets in the world was New Orleans. In the last sentence of this paragraph, he claims to have witnessed the muddy riverbanks turning “golden” as a result of the sun setting.
I've known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The speaker returns to the repeat that began “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the final three lines of this poem. With a small alteration in the center, the lines are largely the same. He starts off by saying, “I’ve known rivers,” three times. They serve as a reminder of the lengthy and varied life he has led. Due to his friendship with and devotion to these bodies of water, he has attended some of the most significant historical events in the history of the globe. They are called “dusky” and “ancient,” respectively. The darker, shadow-like undertone this provides them is appropriate for the range of experiences he had. The speaker repeats the phrase “My soul has become deep like the rivers” to close. This is undeniably the situation. He has seen a lot more than anyone alive could ever dream of.