Written by Langston Hughes while on a train as he gazed out the window of the Pullman and saw the mighty Mississippi River, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is a poem whose theme is the role of rivers in the lives of Negroes. Hughes remarked that as he watched the river from his window, he began to think of what the old Mississippi had meant to Negroes in the past, the misery that it represented as they were sold down this river, "the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage." Yet, Hughes transcended this temporal image of the Mississippi River and wrote an extended metaphor that establishes the connection of rivers with African heritage.
His first lines.
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
universalize the first-person pronoun as that of all people who are connected by the "river of time." This statement that is not racially specific connects the movement of the rivers mentioned with life, for water is symbolic of life.
The next line, which acts as a refrain in this lyric poem because it is repeated after each stanza, underscores Hughes's role in this poem as both speaker and participant. Moreover, when he repeats this line at the end of the poem, Hughes affirms with his simile his pride in his African heritage as well as the endurance of the black : "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." Certainly, the imagery of water and death connect to the immortality of the black soul that endures, that has "known rivers ancient as the world." Then, as the muddy river turns "golden in the sunset," this image of gold affirms freedom.