How is each poet's expression unique (Langston Hughes,“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Claude McKay "If We Must Die")?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What makes Langston Hughes' expression unique in his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," is his reliance on the metaphor comparing the black race to rivers, which he is saying are both ancient, strong and enduring. In his poem, he compares rivers that are exceptional by comparison to other rivers—including the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi. Each one has some distinctive quality, with regard to depth, length, etc. Having written this poem at the age of seventeen, it is...

...perhaps the most profound...poems of heritage and strength.

As Hughes contemplates the river, he sees that it has a great deal in common with the black man. They, too, are exceptional, and deeply rooted to the earth, from all corners of the world. When Hughes looks at the sun shining on the Mississippi, one source notes:

The angle of the sun on the muddy water...turns mud into gold.

If Langston Hughes' poem concentrates on the history of the black man, a part of the earth itself, Claude McKay's poem is unique because it does not call for reflection as Hughes' poem does, but calls for action instead. In fact, it is a "call to arms," asking black men to fight those who would kill them like they are animals. If death is to come, McKay rallies blacks to die with honor: to fight back even if the chance of success is slim. He wrote later that the poem "exploded out of me."

These are very different approaches to the oppression of the black race. Hughes seems to speak of hope born from a historic jointure with the earth—almost as old as the earth itself: a message of connection and perseverance. McKay's poem reflects a different and unique approach to the same issue: however his message is to take action, meeting violence with violence if need be.

Hughes looks to the past for grounding of the soul. McKay looks to "fire and blood," rather than passive acceptance. Each poet's expression is particularly unique.


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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that part of what makes each poet's expression unique in terms of what it means to be Black in America is that both poems feature the wide experience of what it means to be Black in America.  Both poems highlight resistance, but in different ways. For example, McKay's poem is noteworthy because of its dominant theme of active resistance.  The poem is layered with the idea that if death is part of the struggle of being African- American, then one should embrace this idea with a sense of resistance against those forces that wish to oppress people of color.  There is little in McKay's poem that represents anything other than embracing the element of resistance in all of its forms.  "Meet the common foe," "pressed to the wall, but fighting back," and the notion of "nobly die" are all examples of this. It appeals to a young person's sentiment, the notion that fighting back and resistance are one in the same.  Hughes' poem is also one of resistance, but its notion of resistance is fundamentally different.  Hughes' poem speaks of being Black as something that is transcendent, an element that while forces have colluded to do damage to people of color, there is a spirit of resiliency that will allow them to endure and eventually triumph over these elements.  In Hughes' poem, the heritage in being a person of color, specifically African- American, intrinsically involves strength and endurance, elements of resistance.  Hughes' poem takes a "superhistorical" view that embraces the present tense in the context of the past, unlike McKay's which takes the present condition that argues for "the fierce urgency of now."  In this light, Hughes is suggesting that the resistance of being a person of color is embedded in the heritage of African- Americans, something that will allow them to see their current struggle in the context of something larger.  In both unique expressions, resistance is highlighted in different contexts.  Yet, the similar element is the presence of this idea of not surrendering, embracing resistance as the fight for "the dream" continues.

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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