The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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One of the goals of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is to have American society acknowledge African Americans "as owners of the culture they gave to the United States and as fully enfranchised American citizens.  Do you think such a "goal" is necessary today?

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The answer to this question is, of course, a matter of personal opinion.  My own view is that such a goal is not nearly as necessary today as it was in 1920 when Langston Hughes wrote this poem.  However, it is still important that Americans realize that much of their culture is rooted in African American culture and it is important to try to make sure that African Americans will be treated as “fully enfranchised American citizens.”

In one way, this goal is not really necessary today.  In Hughes’s time, the importance of African Americans was not acknowledged and they were not fully enfranchised even in the eyes of the law.  This was a time when lynching was still common in the South.  It was a time when Jim Crow laws were a matter of course.  It was a time when white Americans were starting to go watch African Americans perform jazz music but when the musicians were still looked down upon.  At that time, it was necessary for white America to be made more aware of African Americans.

Today, we can argue, this is not necessary.  We have a president who is partly African American.  African Americans have rights that are equal to everyone else’s.  We have things like “Black History Month.”  Every history textbook we use in schools highlights African American contributions to American society.  In such an environment, it does not seem as necessary to pursue Hughes’s goal.

However, it is also possible to argue that this goal is still important.  While African Americans have the right to vote, there are things like voter ID laws that are seen by many as ways to limit the black vote.  While the president is part black, there are many who arguably hate him for that reason.  While black artists abound and we know that most of our music has deep roots in black culture, issues still arise in which people feel that white artists are exploiting black music and black people for their own benefit.  We recently saw this as one aspect of the uproar over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards.  In these ways, we can say that Americans still need to accept African Americans as full members of our society.

Thus, the answer to this question is very much a matter of personal opinion.

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