Langstone Hughes’ trip to Mexico in 1920 is a well-documented fact. As a recent high school graduate, aged 18, he traveled to get reacquainted with his father, who fled the racial discrimination in the US, and his fellow black men. Crossing the Mississippi, Hughes thought of a short verse that, while written in barely 15 minutes, spans thousands of years and uncovers deep connections to the rivers throughout the history of the black race. While outwardly simple and unwieldy, the poem hides several core themes, including history, interconnectedness, and soul, while using symbolism and repetition to drive the point home.
The verse opens with a short line, “I’ve known rivers,” that later expands to include the knowledge of ancient rivers that are older than humanity. The main body of the verse takes the reader back thousands of years to dawns over the Euphrates, first huts on the shores of Congo and pyramids overlooking the Nile. Finally, the poem comes closer to the present time, reflecting the singing of Mississippi as Abraham Lincoln made his way to New Orleans. The final lines mirror the poem’s opening, once again stating the poet has “known the rivers: ancient, dusky rivers.” The third and last lines of the poem are the same and read, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is undoubtedly a lyrical poem, though it follows the mores of jazz poetry. Without obvious rhyme or rhythm, it may not be easy to read. However, once the reader imagines it overlaid with a jazz melody, the pacing and disparate line lengths make sense and create an elegant harmony.
While still young, Langston Hughes was a master of symbolism. The poem seems simple and clear at first glance, it is ripe with hidden messages. For example, rivers could be read as symbols for the flow of human history, or rather, the planet’s history. The rivers were there before humanity and would remain after the last human died. But, like history, rivers remain impassive, though they can be affected by turning points, like Lincoln’s visit to New Orleans.
Pyramids are a clear reference to the slave labor that went into building the pharaos’ mausoleums. While huts along Congo that lulled the narrator to sleep take the reader back to happier and safer times, when the indigenous peoples of Africa were free of the oppressive rulers.
Finally, the repetition of the line about the human soul growing deeper than the rivers holds a certain religious connotation but is an extension of the symbolism permeating the poem. It can be read to mean that the human soul can be as eternal as the river and history itself.
Themes Within the Poem
The history of the black race is the prime theme of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Of the four rivers Langston Hughes recites in the short poem, each is witness to a certain stage of the African people’s development. While the Euphrates is cited as the cradle of the black race, the Congo is a soothing mother, lulling her children to sleep in their huts. The Nile is a direct opposite, a witness to the slave sacrifices made to build the pyramids. And Mississippi is not only the muse for the whole poem but also the sight of the slavery abolition by Abraham Lincoln.
While demonstrating a clear historical timeline, the rivers also bring in the theme of interconnectedness. The generations of the black population are connected through the water. For one, all rivers flow into the sea, only for their water to evaporate and fall as the rain that feeds the springs that connect to form a river. For another, the rivers referenced in the poems remain largely unchanged, which means that Hughes’ ancestors could have watched the same rivers as he did when he wrote the poem.
The final theme of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” worth mentioning is religious, or rather faith-related. The writer brings up souls twice in the line that repeats at the opening and closing of the poem to emphasize the point. One could understand his words to mean that a human soul can be as deep, unfathomable, and immutable as the rivers that have seen the dawn of human civilization. It could be a commentary on the eternal nature of the soul. The poet could also address the belief that souls could be rebirthed or contact the living. However, the most plausible explanation seems to be that Hughes considered every soul to be as complex and deep as the rivers.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is one of Hughes’ most anthologized poems, while also being one of his first published works. Despite his relative inexperience, the writer utilizes the same style that would permeate his later works. Simple wording and vivid imagery hide the depth of symbols that take the reader on a time-traveling journey through the four stages of the black people’s history, from their birth and security to slavery and its abolition. And while some of the pages of this history are neither happy nor pleasant, the reader can feel the pride with which the poet infused every line. Throughout the verse, Langston Hughes raises the heavy themes of historical injustices, the interconnectedness of the black race and the eternal soul that remains as unchanging and powerful as the river.
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