The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes
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In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", what aspect of human biology does the speaker compare to rivers?

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Langston Hughes’ beautiful poem about the journeys that African-Americans have taken uses a metaphor to describe how the river, as a source of travel, is like “the flow of human blood in human veins.” Using rivers as a metaphor for the journey of life in Africa as well as...

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Langston Hughes’ beautiful poem about the journeys that African-Americans have taken uses a metaphor to describe how the river, as a source of travel, is like “the flow of human blood in human veins.” Using rivers as a metaphor for the journey of life in Africa as well as the United States is a theme that runs throughout many writings by African Americans. Because slave trade often involved the shipping of slaves up and down rivers like the Mississippi, it becomes a poignant historical symbol for the many journeys Africans have taken. Hughes mentions the rivers in Africa like the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile when life and survival revolved around the river environment. 

Being enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean during the time of the Middle Passage also symbolizes the journey or Diaspora of the African. Their many journeys continued with the selling of slaves. The saying, “being sold down the river” has particular meaning as well. For a slave, the further south the slave was sold, the harder the environment and the further they were from family. It was catastrophic for the slave, and the transport on rivers shows this.

The importance the river has had in African American history and as a symbol in literature, allows Hughes to compare it to blood flowing through his veins. The river is so much a part of the African American experience that even the souls of slaves have “grown deep like the rivers.”

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