Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is perhaps Hughes’s most anthologized work because of its brevity, directness, memorability, and subject matter. According to Hughes, he wrote the poem in a matter of minutes on the back of an envelope while taking a train down to Mexico during a visit to his estranged father. When the train crossed over the Mississippi River, he felt inspired to write about rivers—particularly the Mississippi—in conjunction with the history of the Black experience. Hughes’s father, who left the family when Hughes was younger, apparently hated other Black people and their culture, despite being Black himself. This self-hatred runs counter to the idealized, celebratory nature of Hughes’s poem. Given that the envelope on which Hughes wrote his poem originally contained a letter from his father, it’s hard not to imagine that Hughes wrote the poem in response to his father’s disdain for their own people and their cultural legacy.
The poem was published a year later in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, with W. E. B. Du Bois serving as editor. It became an instant success among Black readers, helping Hughes become a pivotal member of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and intellectual movement that celebrated Black culture. To this day, the poem remains a classic of American literature and a staple of Black American poetry.
While the poem itself does not technically have a plot, its speaker does trace the larger narrative of Black history by taking readers on a journey through the ancient roots of Black people across the African diaspora. As an overarching strategy, the speaker compares his soul to the deep and ancient rivers of the Euphrates, Nile, and Mississippi. Through this comparison, he traces his ties—and the ties of all people of African descent—to the beautifully rich cultures and histories of Africa. In other words, the speaker connects the soul of Africa with the souls of Black Americans.
The speaker uses the Euphrates River as an emblem for early civilizations, imagining that people bathed in the same river “when dawns were young.” He then describes freedom in Africa through the construction of a peaceful home by the Congo River—an image which is placed in sharp contrast to the construction of the Egyptian pyramids along the Nile, possibly as a result of slave labor. Finally, he references the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States when the Mississippi River begins “singing.” At the end of the poem, the speaker repeats the signature line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” as though he has reached the end of a centuries-long journey that culminates in this final moment of self-realization.