The sun was setting as the train reached St. Louis and began the long passage from Illinois across the Mississippi and into Missouri, where Hughes had been born. The beauty of the hour and the setting--the great muddy river glinting in the sun, the banked and tinted summer clouds, the rush of the train toward the dark, all touched an adolescent sensibility tender after the gloomy day. The sense of beauty and death, of hope and despair, fused in his imagination. A phrase came to him, then a sentence. Drawing an envelope from his pocket, he began to scribble. In a few minutes Langston had finished a poem.
. . .
With its allusions to deep dusky rivers, the setting sun, sleep, and the soul, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is suffused with the image of death and, simultaneously, the idea of deathlessness. As in Whitman's philosophy, only the knowledge of death can bring the primal spark of poetry and life. Here Langston Hughes became "the outsetting bard," in Whitman's phrase, the poet who sings of life because at last he has known death. Balanced between the knowledge of love and of death, the poetic will gathers force. From the depths of grief the poet sweeps back to life by clinging to his greatest faith, which is in his people and his sense of kinship with them. His frail, intimidated self, as well as the image of his father, are liquidated. A man-child is born, soft-spoken, almost casual, yet noble and proud, and black as Africa. The muddy river is his race, the primal source out of which he is born anew; on that "muddy bosom" of the race as black mother, or grandmother, he rests secure forever. The angle of the sun on the muddy water is like the angle of a poet's vision, which turns mud into gold. The diction of the poem is simple and unaffected either by dialect or rhetorical excess; its eloquence is like that of the best of the black spirituals.
From Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © by Arnold Rampersad.