The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a poem written in 1920 by Langston Hughes, and is considered his earliest mature work. In the poem, Hughes does not just explore his own past, but also that of the black race. He wrote the poem at the age of seventeen, having been inspired to write it when a train he was travelling on crossed over the Mississippi river. Although he did not actually write it in or about Harlem, Hughes explores themes that were closely related to the Harlem renaissance. The Negro Speaks of Rivers celebrates the soul and voice of the African-American community at a time when there were intense injustices, inequality and racial intolerance in the United States. It connects the heritage and soul of the black community to four rivers in Africa, the Middle East and America. It tells the story of enslavement and freedom that African Americans have gone through while also heralding their strength and wisdom.
The poems speaker states that he has known rivers that are as old as the world and older than the blood flowing in humans veins. He claims that his own soul has grown deep like those rivers he has mentioned. The speaker talks about bathing in river Euphrates river when civilization began, and later builds a hut along river Congo in which he could listen to as he went to sleep. He also talks about checking out the Nile watching the pyramids rise close by. In addition, he heard the muddy river Mississippi when American president Abraham Lincoln was traveling to New Orleans. This way, he relates himself to his ancestors and firmly places them in crucial historical, cultural and religious sites all across the world. This articulate and insightful description is an indication of the speaker formidable intellect and enables him make a definitive link between people belonging to his race and other human civilizations. During the early 20th century when Hughes wrote the poem, white Americans viewed African Americans as less than human.
By looking at the poems title, it is apparent that it sets a solemn but appreciative tone for the poem. The title says The Negro Speaks of Rivers rather than I Speak of Rivers. This shows that the speaker is not only a Negro but also not a single specific Negro. It also means that he is speaking on behalf of all Negroes. All in all, he is not just speaking on behalf of any Negroes. Given the allusions to Mississippi river and Abraham Lincoln are not just to Negroes but also America at large shows that Hughes is talking on behalf of all African Americans. The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a proclamation of the entire African American history as it flourished and grown along the above-mentioned rivers that gave life to people of this race.
The articulation of ancient as used in the poem proves that Hughes is talking about the roots and history of black Americans. The term ancient can be defined as something old, primitive and decrepit; clearly a term to be used when talking about the history of a certain race and their journey. The word is repeated twice in the poem to emphasize that the wait for equality among African Americans has been long and difficult. This is despite the fact that the ethnic race has been there since ancient times since they had been fighting for racial equality for a long time.
Hughes consistently puts emphasis on his message throughout the poem, weaving in the most crucial line in the mid part and at the end of the poem. He appears to be representing his people. Black Americans have been abused by society and have waited for equality for a long time. This has weathered and deepened their souls over time, the same way a river would become weathered and deepened. Hughes soul, which is the combined soul of black Americans, is described in the poem as having become deep like the rivers. The simile suggests that the mentioned rivers are part and parcel of the body, and contribute to the immortality that Hughes is desperately trying to achieve for the people of his race. Rivers happen to be earthly symbols that represent eternity considering that they are deep, mystifying and constant.
The rivers mentioned in the poem are named in a certain order: in the order of how they are associated with black history. By applying several allusions, it becomes evident the context of which the poet wishes to draw attention. For instance, the line when dawns were young in the poem refers to a time when Negroes were being used as slaves in western Asia along the Euphrates river. The poem ends with Abe Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation when slavery was finally put to an end. In addition, the poet alludes to the slavery era when Africans were coerced to raise pyramids for their masters. The way Mississippi was converted from muddy bosom to golden by merely sun rays appear to imitate the transformation of black slaves to free men by Abraham Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation. In this line of the poem, the rivers and the Negroes has become one thing in their evolution. Hughes is of the opinion that the journey is yet to be completed. The negro is has witnessed civilizations rise and fall from the earliest of times, observed the death-changes and splendor of the world over millenniums, and will definitely survive in America.
Readers seldom notice that if the Negros soul in The Negro Speaks of Rivers goes back to the Euphrates. The soul goes back to a pre-racial dawn and an area far from the continent of Africa that neither identified in terms of blackness or whiteness. When Hughes was writing the poem, it was an area that was considered the cradle of all civilizations in the world and possibly the place where the Garden of Eden is located. Therefore, even in such a poem about the depth of a black mans soul, the poet avoids racial essentialism while at the same time emphasizing the racialized, existential conditions of modern and black identity.
The perception that Hughes was a folk poet hides the fact that he is a brilliant poet who communicates radical ideas. The politics of black power are familiar to those born in the sixties. It is thus surprising that Hughes was discussing these politics in his poetry in the 1920s. The Negro Speaks of Rivers is just the first in a series of poems by him that talk about the historical experience of African Americans.
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