The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

Black 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 enslaved people 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) Black 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. His experience of history stretches even back to a time before human beings, for the speaker knows “rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”

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