The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes
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Why does Langston Hughes describe the rivers as "ancient" and "dusky" in line nine of his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"?

Langston Hughes describes the rivers as "ancient" and "dusky" in line nine of his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" because he is trying to demonstrate a connection between present-day African Americans and their cultural heritage. He wants to show African Americans that they are descendants of something bigger, a culture that stretches back to the dawn of civilization.

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In this poem, Hughes establishes the strength of African Americans by creating a connection to the history that unites them. Rivers often symbolize a flow of experience or a source of life, and both are connected by the author's usage of the symbol.

The speaker is deeply connected to the rivers of history. He establishes a connection between himself and the history of the Euphrates, which is considered one of the fundamental sources of life at the dawn of civilization. He connects himself to the slaves who "raised the pyramids" above the Nile River and then those slaves in America who were freed along the Mississippi River. In each reflection, African Americans were present. They faced struggles. And they survived.

In line nine, then, the speaker explains that he has "known rivers." He, too, has known struggle and hardship, but he feels deeply connected to the power of African Americans who have persevered since the dawn of civilization. Through this connection, the speaker feels empowered to fully live, knowing that there is hope in the midst of the struggle. He is connected to his ancestors in a metaphorical sense that is life-giving.

"Dusk" is another word for "twilight," that period of time when the daylight is fading and night is approaching. At this time of day, it gets a bit harder to see and there is a somewhat mystical feeling that surrounds this time of day. This word choice connects the speaker to the long shadows which have fallen over the history of his ancestors and also interjects another image of darkness, metaphorical for his race, as the poem closes.

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Langston Hughes speaks of "ancient" and "dusky" rivers in his poem to emphasize how far back the roots of black culture and civilization go. The poem is a celebration of black heritage, and its imagery is meant to challenge common negative American stereotypes of blacks as savages.

The poem romanticizes the black experience. Romanticism is the opposite of realism: in romanticism, writers and artists try to show a social group in its best and most ennobling light. This positive characterization was often used in European poetry to help elevate despised groups, such as gypsies and the rural poor.

Hughes casts black history in a romantic haze when he speaks of bathing in the Euphrates or looking at the Nile and the pyramids. He follows in the tradition of Walt Whitman, a celebrated American poet who spoke in romantic, positive terms about the American experience. Like Whitman, Hughes uses a universal "I" to speak of himself as embodying a long and positive black history. He celebrates the emancipation of black slaves when he alludes to Abraham Lincoln coming to New Orleans.

By setting aside the phrase "ancient, dusky rivers" as a separate line, Hughes emphasizes rivers both as a metaphor for the long flow of black history going back to the dawn of civilization and the role of literal rivers as a part of the black ("dusky") experience.

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The "ancient, dusky rivers" to which Langston Hughes refers in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" are not simply features of a remote landscape; they are the living embodiment of a cultural tradition that stretches back over thousands of years. And modern-day African Americans are part of that tradition.

Yet all too many of them are unaware of their heritage, and it is that deficiency that Hughes seeks to remedy. He wants to celebrate black life and culture in all its richness and vitality. He does this by reminding his readers that they are descendants of an ancient culture that, like the rivers of Africa, goes back to the very dawn of civilization.

The meaning of the word "ancient" is therefore perfectly clear. As for "dusky," that means means dark, and Hughes, in emphasizing the darkness of African rivers, also wants to establish an imaginative connection between his readers and the land in which their distant ancestors lived.

The rivers, like the color of African Americans' skin, is dusky. But they, again like the color of African Americans' skin, are also ancient, giving both a sense of permanence and abiding value as part of a long-standing cultural tradition. The implication here is that African Americans should be proud of both their skin color and the civilization of their ancestors.

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Langston Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" connects the African-American race to rivers, especially ancient rivers, to show the value of the African race. Rivers fertilize soil and offer fresh drinking water, making rivers a valuable source for sustaining life. All rivers he names in the poem are famous for the fertility and even economic prosperity they provide. Most of the rivers he names are also associated with Africa or the African-American race. Hence, Hughes is using the ancient rivers as symbols of prosperity connected with Africa to show the value of the African race.

The connection between the rivers and the African race is especially portrayed in the lines, "I have known rivers: / Ancient, dusky rivers." As mentioned earlier, most of the rivers named in the poems have been known of and valued since ancient times, including the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile. Just like the rivers are ancient, so is the African race. Plus, just as the rivers are valued because they are essential for human life and provide abundance and prosperity, so should the African race be valued. Hence, Hughes refers to the rivers as "ancient" to draw a parallel between the ancient rivers and the ancient African race.

The term dusky in the phrase "dusky rivers" can be translated as meaning "dim," "shadowy," or "dark" in color (Random House Dictionary). Depending on the viewpoint, river water can appear deep blue, deep grey, or even deep brown. River water can especially look deep brown when it becomes polluted with substances like mud, just as the Nile and the Mississippi rivers are often polluted with mud during flooding seasons. Since river water is dark in hue, we can see Hughes is relating the water color of the ancient rivers to the skin color of those of the African race in order to draw a further connection between the value of the ancient rivers and the value of the ancient African race.

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