Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is perhaps Hughes’s most anthologized poem. Written in the first-person voice, the poem begins, “I’ve known rivers.” The “I” is a collective voice of black people from ancient times (3000 b.c.e.) to the present. The narrator’s voice speaks of bathing in the Euphrates, building a hut near the Congo, raising pyramids by the Nile, and watching the sun set on the Mississippi. The refrain, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” links the movement and endurance and power of the great rivers to black history.
The repeated “I,” beginning seven of the ten lines, focuses the reader on the narrator, the black person who speaks of rivers, and on the effects of the tie between his history and the rivers.
In Hughes’s autobiography The Big Sea, he says that he wrote the poem on the back of an envelope on a train just outside St. Louis on his way to Mexico to visit his father during the summer of 1920. Hughes says that he was feeling very bad, because he was thinking of his father’s strange dislike of his own people.
Hughes, who liked his people very much, says his thoughts then turned to history, the Mississippi, and finally the other rivers of the world. Within ten or fifteen minutes, he had written the poem. Hughes concludes that he no doubt changed “a few words the next day, or maybe crossed out a line or two.”
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was positively reviewed by both black and white critics, and it appeared in translation in a paper printed in Germany. The poem has been acclaimed for Hughes’s passionate acceptance of his race, his combination of lyric and epic, his embracing of heritage, and his reclaiming of black origins.