The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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What point does Hughes make by mentioning rivers from four historical periods in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”?

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is narrated in the first person by a speaker who insistently claims knowledge of and association with “rivers ancient as the world.” In the central stanza, he refers to four rivers in succession: the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi.

The Euphrates is one of the rivers of the fertile crescent in Mesopotamia (a name which itself means “in the middle of the rivers”). The Congo flows through central Africa, through the region of the same name. It is one of the largest and longest rivers in Africa—the longest in the world after the Nile, which is mentioned next.

These rivers symbolize the dawn of civilization. The speaker claims kinship with the builders of the ziggurats and the pyramids, even the “hut near the Congo.” This is because all humanity came originally from Africa. The speaker has known the rivers ever since the dawn of time and, through the countless ages, his soul has grown deep.

The speaker adds one American river to his list. The Mississippi is perhaps the most famous river in America and is quintessentially southern. This river has witnessed slavery more recently than the Euphrates or the Nile. Its inclusion with the rivers of Africa and Mesopotamia shows the continuity of the speaker’s experience and of his oppression, lending weight to the claim that his "soul has grown deep, like the rivers."

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