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The rivers which Hughes describes follow the history of human evolution,beginning with the Euphrates, where human civilization is believed to have begun, to the African rivers of the Congo and Nile, and eventually to the Mississippi, where Africans were brought as slaves to America. Hughes’ poem speaks to the deep cultural history to which W. E. B. DuBois often alluded as an undiscovered strength of African-American culture.
Rivers have specific geographic boundaries, and yet by naming the rivers and their locales, the speaker communicates the universal, boundless nature of the human soul. The title informs the reader that the speaker is African American,though the racial identity is not overtly mentioned in the poem itself. The effect of this approach is to suggest that the connection of spirit and soul that this “I”shares with the earth is organic, even prehistoric.
The incidents, including references to bathing in line 5, building a hut on the Congo in line 6, pyramids in line 7, and singing of the slaves in Mississippi in response toLincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, all evoke the active role and contributions of African Americans throughout history. The chronology of these stanzas reinforces not only the historical participation of the“Negro” but the spiritual depth he has acquired in the long journey from slavery to freedom.
epollock's comments are very good, especially the opening focus on "human" history, not only African American history.
This poem really interests me because it seems at once both racially specific and non-specific. Most readers have no trouble seeing the racially specific elements: the speaker in the poem is "The Negro" and the references to the Mississippi and Abe Lincoln can be read as allusions to the enslavement of African Americans in the American South.
Fewer readers seem to pick up on the non-specific elements. The Euphrates is not closely connected to African American history, for example, and the Nile also has a tenuous connection. (There are widely held beliefs, not always easy to prove or disprove, among many African Americans that ancient Egypt was ruled by black African leaders.) The repeated use of the word "human" may work against a race-specific reading, as may the colors in the poem: "muddy," "golden," and "dusky" are more varied than "black."
this poem is hard to understand
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