The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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How does the speaker of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" identify with his cultural ancestors?

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The speaker shows how he identifies with is cultural ancestors by speaking of them using "I," as if they were himself. He also identifies with and takes pride in the positive aspects of his heritage.

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The speaker uses specific examples of his Black cultural ancestry in this poem, tying himself to both his distant and near cultural heritage. He emphasizes this sense of oneness and identity by speaking of his ancestors as if they were himself, saying "I bathed in the Euphrates ... I built...

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my hut near the Congo."

The speaker chooses positive images associated with his cultural past: bathing in the Euphrates would conjure positive images of ancient Black middle eastern culture, as would the "Nile" and the "pyramids." These show the kind of great cultures Black people like him helped to build. Even references to the nearer past of slavery are cast in a positive light: the speaker focuses on Abraham Lincoln, an emblem of Black emancipation, rather than on slavery, and on the way the mud of New Orleans, a city that was the center of the slave trade, has been turned "golden."

The speaker states that his identification with the past helps his soul deepen and become richer. Like Walt Whitman, who also used a universal "I" to express his exuberant oneness with the entire universe, this speaker sees himself as formed out all of the cultures that preceded him. He claims a very long heritage, which gives him pride and a sense of connection with his pasts far and near.

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