What can be associated with the rivers in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

Read the study guide:
The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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