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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

Slavery and Freedom

In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the speaker uses some of the earth’s oldest and largest rivers to explore African-descended people’s connection to Africa—even those who live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. While the larger narrative of the African people begins with a peaceful existence along the Congo River, the poem hints at slave labor in both ancient Egypt and the early United States. When the speaker describes the Mississippi River, he refers mainly to both slave states in the South and Black people’s eventual freedom from slavery. The river itself sings with joy when emancipation comes to the southern United States. In a sense, freedom flows like the river, far deeper and more powerful than the bonds of slavery. This newfound freedom continues up to Langston Hughes’s day, as shown by how the speaker reflects on cultural memories of liberation and hope while looking toward a future full of possibility.

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African American Lineage

Hughes’s poem serves as a disruption of White cultural history by using rivers as a metaphor for the Black experience. He starts with the Euphrates, which is located in the Fertile Crescent, home to the earliest civilizations. He then moves to the Congo and Nile Rivers, both of which were resources for the Bantu peoples and ancient Egyptians, respectively. He concludes with the Mississippi River, which sang “when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans.” Here, Hughes refers to Abraham Lincoln’s voyage to New Orleans in a flatboat, or cargo boat, when he was a teenager. The experience first exposed the future president to the slave markets in the city. 

The river’s “singing” is a reference to the spirituals that slaves sang—a tradition that led to the formation of the musical genre of the blues, which is largely associated with the Mississippi Delta and the Harlem Renaissance. As an artistic movement, the Harlem Renaissance brought about a resurgence of music, art, literature, theater, and philosophy created by (and for) African Americans. Published at the onset of this movement, the poem is full of nostalgia for the African art and culture that has come before. By looking back to the previous traditions of the South and the Mississippi Delta, Hughes looks forward to the Harlem Renaissance, which both honors those traditions and creates new music and poetry for their day.

History as Personal Narrative

Hughes presents the experience of history as a personal one by using first-person narration. This connection to history provides the speaker in the poem with both cultural depth and an understanding of the self when he realizes that his own soul has “grown deep” like the rivers he describes. Yet even with his use of the first-person pronoun “I,” the speaker is not alone: he embodies the entire history of Black people by carrying their memories, experiences, and culture with him.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Langston Hughes was deeply concerned with the history and social condition of his people. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” reflects the poet’s interest in both topics. This poem also speaks of a mystic union of Blacks throughout the world, for it traces their history back to the creation of the world, giving them credit for spanning time and for founding the greatest civilizations that humanity has ever known.

Hughes received the inspiration for this poem as he crossed the Mississippi River by train, feeling melancholy yet drawing pride from thoughts of the rivers that played a part in the history of his race. The images of beauty and death, and of hope and despair, all fused in his adolescent sensibility, causing him to create one of his most beautiful poems. The use of words such as “soul” and “rivers” allows Hughes to touch the deepest feelings and spiritual longings of his own soul and the souls of his people. With the use of the words “deep,” “flow,” “dusky,” and “ancient,” Hughes describes the actual rivers that were involved in Black history, all the while emphasizing the long and glorious history of his race. With this poem, Hughes, often called “the poet of his people,” plunges into the deep well of African American history, uniting it with global African history.

The poem, with its allusions to the setting sun, human blood, and deep, dusky rivers, suffuses the images of death as it speaks of the immortality of the soul. Hughes celebrates the life of Black people by acknowledging death, but the images of death presented in the poem are overshadowed by emphasis on the life of the soul—in this case, a racial soul which runs throughout time like a river. As the muddy water of the Mississippi turns golden in the sunset, so does the poet turn the memory of the history and survival of his people into brilliance. With images of water and pyramid, the verse suggests the endurance of the Black physical presence and spirit from ancient Egypt to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The muddy Mississippi caused Hughes to think about the roles in human history played by the Congo, the Niger, and the Nile, as slaves were passed down these waters to be sold; once sold, these same slaves may have ended up being sold again on the Mississippi. The Mississippi also caused Hughes to think about Abraham Lincoln and the role he played in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Pride in one’s history is a constant theme in the poem. Hughes views the history of Black people, even in slavery, with a sense of pride as he points out the ability of his people to survive their harsh and violent treatment in America. Hughes’s confidence in the strength of Blackness is a major part of his theme of pride; this confidence and pride is his legacy to African Americans. Black culture is still embattled, but Hughes provides a device for countering the argument that Black people are without a vital and universal history.

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