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In comparing Langston Hughes' poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and Claude McKay's poem, "If We Must Die," the difference of the mood of the two poems is what strikes me most. McKay is encouraging his brothers to rise up and fight against the common foe, rather than be hunted down like wild animals. It is a "call to arms," and a challenge that even if death is the end result, the black man must fight back to earn honor in death rather than to be slaughtered like "hogs."
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot...
McKay stresses that some things may not be stopped—like the actions of others moving against the black race, but that his race has a choice in how it meets death. He declares that dying with honor gives purpose to undeserved death—if one does not "go quietly." In using the word "precious," the author shows how meaningful life is: to meet the foe head-on shows dedication to fight those who would harm or kill the black man.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed…
The last lines urge his "kinsmen" to answer the call, to "meet the common foe!" He knows the odds of winning are slim— they are "far outnumbered." He hopes that for the thousand blows given by "the murderous, cowardly pack," he and his brothers will be able to deliver "one death-blow." Winning is not what McKay is concerned with, but the manner in which black men face death. His strident call reminds his brothers that even in face of certain destruction, they are called to fight back, even if "pressed to the wall," showing dignity and honor in dying—that the oppressors refuse to give them in life.
The mood of Langston Hughes' poem addresses the challenges facing black men in a quieter, persevering way. He, too, wants things to be different, but he directs the black man to take pride in his ancient history upon the earth—realizing that he is one with the rivers that have moved since dawn was young. A river may be redirected, but not controlled. It survives the wrath of man and nature. He gives us examples of these champions. The Euphrates River:
...is the longest and one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia.
It has been "deified"..."exalt[ed] to the rank of a [god]." And though things around the river change, it remains steadfast; it is ancient.
The earliest references to the Euphrates come from cuneiform texts...and date to the mid-third millennium BCE.
The Congo River is found in Africa and "is the deepest river in the world," and the second largest river "by volume of discharge," second to the Amazon River, and it is "the ninth longest river."
The Nile River is "famous as the longest river in the world." It is also important in its...
...ability to produce extremely fertile soil, [enabling] cities and civilizations to spring up alongside [its] banks...
Lastly, the Mississippi is the "largest river system in North America…draining all or parts of 31 U.S. states…"
The images of these ever-moving waters demonstrate that they have remained in the face of war and disaster—powerful and deep. Hughes encourages the black man to gain inspiration from rivers that have survived, much the way the black race has, over many, many years: with a quiet strength and "depth."
The themes of both Hughes' poem and McKay's are similar in that both poems reference the idea of immortality and living a worthwhile life. Below are some examples of those similarities:
- Immortality--Hughes' poem features a seemingly immortal speaker, someone who has experienced the "cradle of civilization" by bathing in the Euphrates, someone who has helped build the pyramids, and someone who was a contemporary of Lincoln. Similarly, the speaker in McKay's lines discusses the idea of dying nobly so that even his enemeies may
"honor [him] though dead!" (8).
McKay's speaker does not focus as much on the vast experiences of his race as does Hughes' persona, but both poets suggest that it is possible to be immortalized in others' minds either for one's wisdom or for one's brave actions.
- A worthwhile life--In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Hughes's refrain, "My soul has grown deep like rivers," promotes the idea that Africans (for Hughes, especially African-Americans) have experienced and contributed so much to the world, that readers should listen when "the negro" speaks. For Hughes, that type of life experience produces wisdom to be sought by others. McKay's theme of living a worthwhile life is similar to Hughes' but much more specific. McKay's speaker is not content with simply being an observer of the events around him; rather, he wants to induce change even if it means dying for that cause.
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