Black History

Adrian Oktenberg: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

The identification of Hughes as a folk poet obscures the fact that he is a brilliant poet of ideas, and radical ideas at that. The concepts of negritude and soul, the politics of Black Power, the psychology of black rage, are so familiar to children of the sixties that it comes almost as a shock to realize that Hughes was presenting articulate and concrete images of them in his poetry in the twenties and thirties. While these ideas did not originate with him, he embodied them in verse of such fluency and power that it seems undated half a century later. Moreover, he consistently combined them with the basic premises of revolutionary socialism, and this sympathy is evident--hard to miss--in his work not only of the thirties but to the end of his life.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," then, is only the beginning of a long chain of poems by Hughes which confront, distill, extend, and transform the historical experience of black people into an art both limpid and programmatic. As in all of Hughes' hallmark poems, its distillation is as extreme as any in Issa's haiku. The "I" of the poem is not that of "a" Negro but "the" Negro, suggesting the whole of the people and their history. Most of the consonants--d's, n's, l's, s's—are soft, and of the vowels, long o's reoccur, contributing by sound the effect of an ancient voice. The tone of the repeated declarative sentences is muted, lulling. Every element of the poem combines to suggest that when the Negro speaks of rivers it is with the accumulated wisdom of a sage. The function of a sage is to impart the sometimes secret but long accumulated history of a people to its younger members so that they might make the lessons of the past active in the future. This impartation occurs in the central stanza of the poem:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

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.

Moving by suggestion, by naming particular rivers and particular activities performed nearby, the poem implicates the whole history of African and American slavery without ever articulating the word. "I bathed in the Euphrates" and "I built my hut near the Congo" are the normal activities of natural man performed in his natural habitat. That may be an unnecessarily anthropological way of putting it, but the lines are the equivalent of the speaker having said, "I made my life undisturbed in the place where I lived." The shift--and the lesson--occurs in the next two lines. Raising the pyramids above the Nile was the act of slaves, and if ever "Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans," it would have been in the context of American slavery and the Civil War. Implicit in the history of a people who had first been free and then enslaved is the vision of freedom regained, and therein lies the program. The final line of the poem, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," suggests wisdom in the word "deep." The wisdom imparted by the poem, beyond the memory of the suffering of slavery, includes a more deeply embedded memory of freedom. This is perhaps the more powerful memory, or the more sustaining one, and even if deferred, will reemerge in one form or another.

From "From the Bottom Up: Three Radicals of the Thirties." In A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Copyright © 1987 by The University of Georgia Press

Jean Wagner: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes's first poem, published in The Crisis in June, 1921, attracted the attention it did precisely because its author revealed the acute sensitivity to the racial past that Garvey, with his racial romanticism, was then trying to instill in the minds of all. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" heralded the existence of a mystic union of Negroes in every country and every age. It pushed their history back to the creation of the world, and credited them with possessing a wisdom no less profound than that of the greatest rivers of civilization that humanity had ever known, from the Euphrates to the Nile and from the Congo to the Mississippi. . . .

Yet unlike Countee Cullen, and perhaps because he was the only poet of the Negro Renaissance who had a direct, rather disappointing contact with Africa, Hughes rarely indulges in a gratuitous idealization of the land of his ancestors. If, in spite of everything, the exaltation of African atavism has a significant place in his poetry up to 1931, the reason is merely that he had not yet discovered a less romantic manner that would express his discomfort at not being treated in his own country as a citizen on a par with any other. If he celebrates Africa as his mother, it is not only because all the black peoples originated there but also because America, which should be his real mother, had always behaved toward him in stepmotherly fashion.

From Black Poets of the United States. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Joyce A. Joyce: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes captures the African American's historical journey to America in what is perhaps his signature poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Dedicated to W E. B. Du Bois and using water or the river as a metaphor for the source of life, the poem traces the movement of black life from the Euphrates and Nile rivers in Africa to the Mississippi. Hughes subtly couches his admonishment of slavery and racism in the refrain "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." The first time the line appears in the poem it follows the poet's assertion that he has known rivers "ancient as the world and older than the flow of / human blood in human veins." The poet here identifies himself and his blackness with the first human beings. The second and only other time the line appears in the poem occurs after the poet has made reference to Mississippi, New Orleans, and Abe Lincoln. He places the lines "My soul has grown deep like the rivers" at the end of the poem, this time suggesting that he is no longer the same man who "bathed in the Euphrates" and "built [his] hut near the Congo." He is now a black man who has experienced the pain of slavery and racism, and his soul now bears the imprint of these experiences.

From "Bantu, Nkodi, Ndungu, and Nganga: Language, Politics, Music, and Religion in African American Poetry." In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry. Ed. Joanne V. Gabbins. Copyright © 1999 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

Onwuchekwa Jemie: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is perhaps the most profound of these poems of heritage and strength. Composed when Hughes was a mere 17 years old, and dedicated to W. E. B. DuBois, it is a sonorous evocation of transcendent essences so ancient as to appear timeless, predating human existence, longer than human memory. The rivers are part of God's body, and participate in his immortality. They are the earthly analogues of eternity: deep, continuous, mysterious. They are named in the order of their association with black history. The black man has drunk of their life-giving essences, and thereby borrowed their immortality. He and the rivers have become one. The magical transformation of the Mississippi from mud to gold by the sun's radiance is mirrored in the transformation of slaves into free men by Lincoln's Proclamation (and, in Hughes's poems, the transformation of shabby cabarets into gorgeous palaces, dancing girls into queens and priestesses by the spell of black music). As the rivers deepen with time, so does the black man's soul; as their waters ceaselessly flow, so will the black soul endure. The black man has seen the rise and fall of civilizations from the earliest times, seen the beauty and death-changes of the world over the thousands of years, and will survive even this America. The poem's meaning is related to Zora Neale Hurston's judgment of the mythic High John de Conquer, whom she held as a symbol of the triumphant spirit of black America: that John was of the "Be" class. "Be here when the ruthless man comes, and be here when he is gone." In a time and place where black life is held cheap and the days of black men appear to be numbered, the poem is a majestic reminder of the strength and fullness of history, of the source of that life which transcends even ceaseless labor and burning crosses.

From Langston Hughes: An Introduction to The Poetry. Copyright © 1976 by Columbia University Press.