Last Updated September 5, 2023.
While it’s possible to read the speaker of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as Langston Hughes himself, this narrator of the poem is also his own character. This speaker can best be described as pensive, introspective, and wise. He claims to have “known rivers” as ancient as the Euphrates or the Nile, “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” He also claims to have lived the entirety of African history, having built huts along the Congo River and pyramids in ancient Egypt. He is then brought to the United States through the slave trade, all before the emancipation of enslaved people following the Civil War. His path even crosses that of Abraham Lincoln, who “went down to New Orleans” and witnessed the horrors of slavery firsthand (which may have influenced his decision to pursue emancipation as president).
Most of the lines in the poem begin with either the first-person pronoun “I” or the possessive pronoun “my”; however, the speaker’s use of the first person is similar to Walt Whitman’s. It does not merely encompass a single person’s experience but also the lives of many. In other words, the speaker of the poem embodies all of Black culture and Black history from the beginning of human history to the present. As a result, both the speaker’s soul and the souls of Black people have “grown deep like the rivers” they call home.
Aside from the speaker of the poem, the rivers in the poem could be considered characters unto themselves. Hughes describes the rivers as “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” He invokes the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi briefly but concretely. Each of the rivers has a powerful and profound meaning for the speaker as a Black man and as a representation for all people of African descent. Like rivers, the “soul” of the Black American person runs deep, is crucial to history of the world, and flows throughout time, giving life to one generation after the next. Rivers, the speaker muses, have always been central to the lives of African and African-descended people, from the earliest days of civilization to the days to the days when “Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans.” This last reference is especially poignant, as it reclaims a river that was once a symbol of oppression—to be “sold down the river” was equivalent to death for enslaved people—as a symbol of freedom and life.