The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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What is the significance of the rivers named in lines 4–7 of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers?"

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The Euphrates River is the longest in western Asia and is commonly referred to as the "cradle of civilization." Hughes links himself to this history of a young world when there were few people populating the planet. There is a sense of innocence in the river in its early reference in this poem: providing water for bathing, which is itself symbolic of new beginnings and a return to innocence.

Hughes then moves to reference the Congo, the deepest river in Africa, winding through 11 countries. This river is symbolic of Hughes's deep connections to that continent; the connotations in this reference are also positive. The Congo provides a strategic place for the speaker to build his hut and soothes him to sleep at night.

The connotations shift in the third stanza to reference darker allusions. The Pyramid of Giza still exists as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, yet these pyramids which the speaker "raised" beside the Nile River were constructed with hard physical labor. There is a sense of pride in this line; the speaker's work produced something of greatness which stands as a testament of success thousands of years later.

And then the connotation grows darkest. The fourth river is the Mississippi, providing a path of transit for Lincoln's visit to examine the slaves' conditions. The undercurrent of slavery is in this river, and the "singing" is resonant of the songs of slaves on the Underground Railroad.

The rivers represent a progression of civilization in our world—the rise of civilization to a collapse of humanity. The speaker in this poem leads readers through a journey that begins in innocence and ends in tragedy—and he is connected to it all.

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The four rivers mentioned in the poem are all significant in black history. The first three rivers mentioned represent the ancestral homelands of black people, while the fourth represents recent history and the future. The Euphrates River represents the dawn of civilization; Mesopotamia, site of the first cities and often called the "cradle of civilization," was located between the Tigris and Euphrates. By mentioning the Euphrates "when dawns were young," the speaker traces his origins back to humanity's earliest days.

The Congo, one of the largest rivers in the world, runs from central to west Africa; Hughes mentions homes and being lulled to sleep in conjunction with this river. But the Congo also refers to the region of Africa—West Africa—from which the largest number of blacks were sold into the European slave markets, recalling a more painful part of black history.

The Nile is in northern Africa. Linking the Nile and black people to pyramids suggests the greatness of ancient African civilizations.

Finally, the Mississippi River in America represents both slavery and freedom. By referencing Abe Lincoln in connection with the Mississippi, Hughes alludes to the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for slaves in the southern U.S. Hughes gives a before and after picture of the Mississippi: Its "muddy bosom" represents the era of slavery, but its turning "all golden in the sunset" speaks of the end of slavery and the brighter future for black people in America after the Civil War. Ending the poem with this river lends an optimistic note that there may be happier days ahead and opportunity for black people in their new homeland. Hughes's leading role in the Harlem Renaissance helped black people move toward a revival of the greatness of black culture as represented by that glowing American river.

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Each of the four rivers mentioned in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes is significant to the history of African Americans.

Hughes writes about “the Euphrates when dawns were young.” He is speaking about the earliest civilizations. Evidence of the earliest humans was located during archeological expeditions in the Euphrates River Valley; therefore, he is saying that the African race has been in existence since the dawn of time.

Next, speaker turns to the Congo. Many early civilizations developed along the banks of the Congo River. He writes, that “it lulled me to sleep,” which speaks to the rise and fall of these civilizations with sleep referencing death.

In the next line, he writes about the pyramids along the Nile. The pyramids are one of the wonders of the world and he is alluding to the African race as being instrumental in the development of this ancient architectural feat.

The last river he speaks of is the Mississippi as Lincoln was traveling to New Orleans. The muddy river looked golden as the sun set over it. In these lines, he is speaking of Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. The muddy Mississippi represents the issues associated with slavery while the golden sunset represents the end of slavery and the golden opportunities of free men.

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