The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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Langston Hughes gives us some images involving rivers in his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." What do you understand of these images? How do they operate in the poem?

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These images of rivers form a kind of collective memory for African Americans. In dreaming of the rivers of their ancestral homeland, they are transported back in time to the very dawn of civilization, when humankind first emerged in what is now the continent of Africa. The various rivers mentioned in the poem are not just features of the natural landscape—they are the depths from which the soul of humankind first emerged, depths in which the "negro" seeks to immerse himself as he contemplates his distant ancestry.

But even rivers from the more recent past still resonate in the African American imagination. It was the mighty Mississippi that brought the young Abraham Lincoln, the future Great Emancipator, down to New Orleans, where he first became directly acquainted with the horrors of slavery. The speaker's soul is as deeply immersed in the Mississippi, despite its integral role in the slave trade, as it is in the ancient rivers of Africa and the Middle East. Collectively, these rivers represent two crucial aspects of the African American experience, and both contribute in their own ways to the formation of the speaker's soul.

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