I need ideas for an essay using either an historical or biographical approach to "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Langston Hughes has said of the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" that:

Many of my poems have been about the history of the Negro people. In this poem, 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers', I try to link, in terms of the rivers we have known, Africa, the land of our ancestors, and America, our land today.

His ambition in the poem was to combine the history of the distant past with the history of the near past and lead into the present.

While there is a decided historical background to this poem, there is also a significant biographical link. Hughes wrote this poem when he was seventeen and traveling by train across the Mississippi River. Even as a teen, Hughes was interested in connecting the past with the present in order to awaken the realization of the depth of self. As he says in the above quote, the poem draws the land of the ancestors together with the "land today" through the presence, continuity and transcendence of the power of water that flows in a river; perhaps the river of time; perhaps the river of baptism; perhaps the river of life--all who were are therein connected to all who are because of the rivers that have been known by "the Negro."

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is a beautiful poem which is almost tailor-made for any writing in an historical approach.  The poem itself chronicles, in poetic form of course, the history of the Negro.  Note the use of rivers through time and place to indicate the passage of time and the changes which have happened to this group of people over the centuries.  Note the course of ancient Negro history as demonstrated through the naming of the rivers in these lines:

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.

In more modern times, the Negro journey came to America, as in these lines:

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.

If I were writing from an historical perspective, I'd take each of the rivers mentioned in these lines and briefly discuss the significance of each.  The mention of the Mississippiand Abe Lincoln is a clear reference to the Negroes' emancipation.  A brief discussion of each of those four moments (Euphrates, Congo, Nile, and Mississippi) would easily get you your 400-500 words.  This is a wonderful poem.  Happy writing!

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