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Langston Hughes' poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" seem to have completely different themes and goals to me. McKay's poem clearly speaks of choosing an honorable death, or death while fighting against the foe, rather than being hunted down like an animal.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
While McKay faces the strong potential of meeting death because of being black ("accursèd lot"), he wants to choose how he dies. He wishes for purpose and honor in death:
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
The next group of lines are like a rallying call to war, to enter into the fray with bravery and clear intent:
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
The end of the poem states that if death and the grave lie before them, they must not simply face their loss of life with resignation, but though pressed to the wall, they must fight back against "the murderous, cowardly pack…"
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
However, Langston Hughes' poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" has a totally different sound and seeming intent. His poem harkens to the long history of the black man on the earth, to days when "dawns were young." This would infer to the beginning of time. Hughes mentions mighty rivers, the Euphrates, the Nile and the Mississippi; he alludes to the Congo and its river, that once lulled black men to sleep, but had become a place that has been raped by those who enslaved its people and battled to steal its natural resources. The history of the black man on this earth is connected to things that are timeless such as young dawns and the pyramids. And his history has marched forward to see its purpose and future aligned with the dreams and hopes of a great President who wanted to end the suffering of the slave: Abraham Lincoln.
In all of this, there is an image of beauty and even wealth: the Mississippi turned "all golden in the sunset." This is not a casual image, but one of beauty while despair and oppression may be all around. The main point seems to be that the black man has been around as long as these mighty rivers; rather than drying up, the rivers have grown deep, and the black man's history has also the commitment to survive as have the rivers. Hughes speaks for all his race, I believe, when he states:
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The first poem speaks of fighting back in the face of death, while the second poem speaks of bonds formed over hundreds and hundreds of years—thousands of years—that have joined the black man to the rivers that do not disappear, but live on as a natural part of the earth.
The goals of the poems may be similar in general, by challenging blacks to see themselves with pride and self-worth, regardless of what happens around them. However, Hughes speaks of the Negro's ancient history and its resolve to survive over many years, while McKay speaks of the need to fight back in the raging battle. These two elements separate the themes and goals of the two writers.
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