It is said that the idea for this poem came to Hughes when he crossed the Mississippi River on his way to visit his father.
As an African American, the Mississippi would have been more than just a river to Hughes. It was a symbol of his ancestors' slave past. It was the river that carried the barges loaded with cotton that the slaves had planted and picked, and it was the river that carried the people to be sold to plantation owners. But he does not let the Mississippi be the defining symbol for African Americans. He reminds us that they have an ancient heritage. The Euphrates is one of the rivers that the book of Genesis says flowed through Eden; the Congo is a river in Africa; and the Nile is lifeblood of Egypt and its glorious past. Those rivers and those civilizations are in his blood; they are his heritage. They are the heritage of all African Americans.
One critic has written that this poem "poignantly and dramatically expresses what it means to be a black American that it helps to assure Hughes’s continuing fame."
I think more than any other emotion, Hughes wanted African American people to feel pride in themselves and white people to feel respect for their fellow human beings.