Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)