Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” names four rivers: The Euphrates, The Congo, The Nile, and The Mississippi. In the poem, rivers are used to convey racial memory across millennia of history. Let’s explicate the relevant portion of the poem with attention to the significance of each river. The first river named is The Euphrates, in the Middle East.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
The Euphrates River is in Mesopotamia and is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. The world’s earliest writing was recorded by the early Mesopotamians, and Hughes’s use of this ancient river roots his poem in the earliest beginnings of human experience and communication. Hughes’s next line shifts the generational memories explicitly to Africans.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
The Congo River is in the heart of Africa. Hughes alludes to the peaceful and pastoral existence of Africans before they were taken into slavery in these two lines. It is important to note that the first two rivers, the Euphrates and Congo, have the everyday actions of bathing, sleeping, and building homes associated with them. This shows the status quo before the industrial-scale slavery of the 1500s. The next river, The Nile, shifts the tone of the memories from positive to negative.
I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it.
This is the first explicit allusion to slavery in the poem, as the Pyramids of Giza were famously built by a small army of slaves. Hughes uses the ancient Egyptian landmarks to introduce his own experience as an African American.
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 in the sunset.
The Mississippi River is in the heart of the American South, where most African Americans were enslaved. Hughes ends his list of rivers with the singing heard when “Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,” a reference to the abolishment of slavery in 1863.
Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” uses generational memories from four specific rivers to connect the African American experience in America to thousands of years of history. I hope this helps!