The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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What associations are made with rivers in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes?

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In Langston Hughes's poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” rivers are associated with the soul and life of the speaker's people. They are also associated with the passing of the centuries and with mystery and depth.

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Langston Hughes was a Black author, and he constructs this poem from the viewpoint of the Black experience, which is key to understanding how rivers are used throughout the poem. Note that the title points to "The Negro" to help readers immediately identify the speaker's perspective.

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reminder that Black people have been central to the human experience since the dawn of civilization. Rivers are used to connect the speaker to the entirety of the Black experience; after all, the same water that exists in the Euphrates and Nile today has existed on the planet since its origins, simply f0llowing patterns of the water cycle over and over again.

Rivers are therefore associated with constancy and experience. The water in those rivers is "ancient," and the speaker connects with the life-giving waters in those rivers which have been flowing longer "than the flow / of human blood." Rivers are also associated with depth, demonstrating how the Black experience also has a fullness and intensity. Rivers have a constancy which has flowed through great moments of history, such as the construction of Egyptian pyramids and the American Civil War. The Black experience is therefore seen as one continuous journey, connecting the speaker to all those Black people who have come before him. Just like rivers, the speaker's identity is constructed with the determination and permanence of Black people who have endured various trials throughout human history.

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In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Langston Hughes associates rivers with the life and soul of his people. The speaker, representing his whole race, begins with the declaration “I've known rivers.” He has known “rivers ancient as the world.” He has been around for millennia, and his soul has “grown deep like the rivers.” The speaker's soul is like a river, deep and flowing, ever moving, ever changing, yet with an intensity and profundity that defies thorough explanation.

The speaker then accounts for the rivers by which his people have lived throughout the centuries. He has “bathed in the Euphrates” at the beginning of the world and lived in a “hut near the Congo” and allowed its sound to put him to sleep. He has seen the Nile and the pyramids, and he has “heard the singing of the Mississippi” in the time of Lincoln. Rivers run throughout history. They capture the days and years of the people from ancient times until the present.

Rivers also have a mystery about them. They are ancient and dusky. No one can fully know them or understand them. They are shrouded and beyond human understanding. The speaker implies that the same may be said of the soul of the people. It, too, is ancient and dusky, a mystery in many ways, lost in time and unable to be fully captured, just like a river.

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Langston Hughes wrote and published his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” at the age of nineteen after his high school graduation. He was inspired by the beauty of the Mississippi River as he rode on a train to stay with his father in New Mexico. 

The poem connects four great rivers in the Middle East, Africa, and America---Euphrates, Congo, Nile and the Mississippi.  His purpose was to show the movement of the Negro through time.

Using the technique of one voice representing a collective awareness, the narrator speaks not just to the black man but to human beings in general. He transcends time and place and speaks for an entire group.   All men have dreams, hopes, and ancestry.  This is the history of more than the Negro but all men.

When the poem was written, there was racial intolerance, inequality, and complete segregation. This poem introduced Hughes as the voice for the black and helped unite the Negro in the beginning of the work of civil rights. Like the poem’s subject, Hughes was at the ebb of his work as the most important black poet of the twentieth century and the poet laureate of the black people.

What can be associated with the rivers in the poem?

The rivers symbolize and represent metaphorically the Negro’s history and legacy.  The speaker makes the reader aware that he is speaking from one time looking back at another. “I’ve known rivers.”  It is as though he is an old man looking back at the events that he [and the entire Negro race] has lived through.

As in most of Hughes poetry, he writes with a musical beat. The musical impression makes the reader feel that the speaker is singing, praying, or preaching.  His refrain keeps the beat controlled. The time that he spent with these rivers connected the life blood of the Negro to their flow.  The Negro has not remained stagnant but has grown and expanded in time.

The history of the black man then simplistically follows this pattern:

  • The man bathed in the Euphrates in the dawn of time
  • He lived near the Congo where he slept soundly in his hut.
  • When helping to build the pyramids, the Negro looked down on the Nile.
  • After the black man was brought to the America, he listened to the singing in New Orleans. Then he looked at the muddy waters made golden by the sun.

The man has grown from his experiences and movement like the ancient rivers.  The complexity of man’s soul equals the depth of these rivers.  

Throughout the poem, Hughes uses personification giving the different rivers human qualities:

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

   went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

   bosom turn all golden...

Langston Hughes deceptively simple poetry speaks volumes about the history of man.

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