Theme of Perseverance
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” as our speaker charts the heritage of black Americans, beginning with the cradle of civilization in the Middle East and ending with references to slavery as seen from the Mississippi River, he traces over four thousand years of history. He tells us that as a result of all that he has seen, heard, done, and witnessed, his soul has grown “deep as rivers.” Rivers have stood the test of time and carry an incredible wisdom as a result. Hughes draws a connection between the rivers and the black community, which has endured much and carries an equally profound and powerful wisdom.Our speaker’s soul is deep as rivers because he has persevered.
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/ flow of human blood in human veins. (2-3)
Rivers are immortal. Humans may have been around for a really long time, but they have to die some time. Rivers, on the other hand, keep flowing without end. They must have seen a lot in their lifetime. In fact they must be pretty wise.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers. (4)
Our speaker’s mentor has been the rivers he’s known. These rivers have taught him a whole lot about the world and, as a result, his soul has become like theirs.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. (8-10)
Our speaker devotes three full lines to the Mississippi River, and so we get the sense that the beating heart of this poem lies in this particular river and in its connection to slavery. We get the sense that our speaker wants us to believe the Euphrates River, the Congo River, and the Nile River are all somehow connected to it. The fact that the Mississippi sings suggests it is protesting slavery and celebrating the future president of the United States who will one day abolish slavery. In this way, nature (the rivers) is wiser than humans (who enslave others). Our speaker also redefines history at this moment. American history is often told in a different way through history textbooks (often involving the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, as well as Christopher Columbus), but, here, our speaker tells history from the African-American perspective.
Questions About Perseverance
1.Why does our speaker choose to focus on the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi rivers?
2. Where do we get a sense of perseverance in this poem?
Theme of Race
The title of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” lets us know early on that the story that follows is told from the perspective of a member of the black community. Our speaker begins telling the tale of the birthplace of all civilization by taking us to the Euphrates River, but he ends at a time and place tied to the history of slavery and racism in America: when Abe Lincoln rode a boat down the Mississippi River, witnessing for the first time the horrors of slavery. Our speaker watches the “muddy” Mississippi turn “golden” in the light of the setting sun, suggesting the transformation from slavery to freedom that many Americans experienced after the Civil War. He celebrates the black community in this way.The image of the Mississippi River turning to gold is a symbol for the freeing of slaves.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (title)
When we read this title, we expect that our speaker to be someone witnessing another person speak of rivers. Why isn’t the title, “I Speak of Rivers” or “I’ve Known Rivers?” How does the introduction of race in this title affect our understanding of the poem?
and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset. (9-10)
If these line reflects the transformation from slave into free man, should we be concerned that the sun is setting and that the golden light might not last long? What is the significance of the verb “turn?” How would this line be different if the lines read “and I’ve seen its muddy/bosom all golden in the sunset”? What other interpretations can you think of for the muddy bosom that becomes golden?
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers. (11-12)
When we’ve come to celebrate the golden Mississippi, we are a bit thrown off by when our speaker returns to a description of dark and “dusky” rivers. Why do you think he chooses the word “dusky,” which means “lacking light”?
Questions About Race
1.At what moments do we see the idea of race surface in this poem?
2. What role does the title play in this poem?
Theme of Memory and the Past
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” our speaker seems to be one person at first, but soon we get the feeling that he is speaker for an entire community. His voice just might be a collective voice of a people. In telling the story of this community from the dawn of civilization until the end of slavery in America ( really until the Harlem Renaissance, considering poet Langston Hughes was from that era), the speaker records a history for his community, puts it down in writing. He uses his memory of the past to celebrate the present moment and to instill pride in his community.The speaker in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” redefines history.
Memory and the Past Quotes
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins. (2-3)
Memory is a human thing, right? Without humans, can there be memory? Our speaker connects himself to something that is before human memory and history. He connects himself to the bedrock and foundation of civilization.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. (5)
Not only does our speaker know old rivers, but he grew up with them too. He was around at the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. (6)
Our speaker is not a god or a divine creature. He is distinctly human and he does things like bathe, build, and sleep.
Questions About Memory and the Past
1.What role does memory play in this poem?
2.What moments in the past does our speaker discuss?
3.Do we get a sense of the future in this poem?
Theme of Freedom and Confinement
On our journey through time in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” our speaker begins with the cradle of civilization on the banks of the Euphrates River. Next he stops by the Congo River basin where we are lulled by the lapping waters (and are reminded of the hypothesis that humans originated in Africa), and heads toward Egypt where we join other peasants (perhaps forced into working) in building the pyramids. Lastly, he ends the tour at the Mississippi River, the heart of slavery in America. The journey takes us from moments of freedom (the Euphrates and the Congo) toward confinement (the Nile and the Mississippi). Ultimately, we watch the end of slavery and see freedom restored.At the end of the poem, our speaker is free.
Freedom and Confinement Quotes
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. (7)
We see the strength of our speaker in this moment, imagining him single-handedly building these great monuments. We admire the creativity and innovation he possesses in doing so. Notice how he doesn’t say, “I looked upon the Nile and built the pyramids above it.” Instead, he uses the verb “to raise” which sounds much more mystical to us than “to build.” However, we also remember that it was once widely believed (thanks to the Egyptian historian, Herodotus) that 100,000 slaves were forced to build pyramids. In this light, we watch our speaker move from living freely by the Congo River to a life of slavery by the Nile.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans (8-9)
The Mississippi River was used to help transport slaves, and our speaker refers here to the moment at which a nineteen year-old Abe Lincoln witnessed slavery and the slave trade for the first time. The Mississippi is the last of the four rivers that our speaker names, and it is closely tied to the history of slavery. In this way, we see the trajectory of freedom to enslavement to emancipation in the history of each river.
and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset. (9-10)
Why does our speaker use the term “muddy” here? Why doesn’t he say, “and I saw its muddy/ bosom.” It’s as though the transformation from muddy to golden has happened over and over again, and he has witnessed this process over and over again. If we understand this transformation as a metaphor for the emancipation of slaves, we might also understand that such a transformation continues to take place as people continue to be subject to inequality, and as they continue to fight for freedom and equality
Questions About Freedom and Confinement
1.As he recalls his past, when is our speaker free and when is he confined?1.
2.Do you get the sense that our speaker is currently free?
- Poem Analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes for Waec/neco Literature Exams (108) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)