Langston Hughes and The Negro Speaks of Rivers
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Langston Hughes’s first mature poem. He wrote it in 1920 at the age of seventeen, while traveling by train to visit his father in Mexico. The young Hughes was inspired to pen this verse when his train crossed over the Mississippi River. It was published in 1921 in the journal the Crisis, which had a predominantly African American readership. Although Hughes did not technically write "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in or about Harlem, he addresses themes that would later become closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes dedicated this poem to W.E.B. DuBois a few years after its initial publication. It was also read out loud at Hughes's own funeral service in 1967.
When Langston Hughes was writing "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," he was most influenced by the work of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. He particularly cited Whitman's “Song of Myself” as an inspiration for the longer lines in “Negro.” The poem is free verse but has the rhythm of a gospel preacher. Hughes utilizes anaphora, which is the repetition of words or phrases at the start of each line, like “I built,” “I looked,” and “I heard.”
In this poem, the speaker links himself to his ancestors, firmly placing them in important historical, religious, and cultural sites all over the world. The speaker begins by claiming a connection to the world's ancient rivers that predated human beings, and that has made his soul grow "deep like the rivers." This insightful and articulate description indicates the speaker's immense intellect, and allows him to make a definitive connection between people of his race and the rest of human civilization. In the early 20th Century, white Americans often viewed their darker-skinned counterparts as less than human, and here, Hughes offers concrete proof of historical equality. Rivers have specific geographic boundaries, and yet by naming the rivers and their locales, the speaker communicates...