The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Study Guide

Langston Hughes

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Context


Jim Crow, Lynching, and Black Flight

For a brief period after the Civil War (1861–65) the federal government, having passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteed freedom, the ability to vote, and equal protection under the law to newly freed black people. By the late 1870s, however, white supremacists filled the state legislatures of the South and passed laws that enforced segregation—commonly known as Jim Crow laws. Besides suffering segregation and discrimination, African Americans were subject to horrific violence. By one estimate, an average of 119 African Americans were tortured and lynched (a punitive and illegal mob killing) every year between 1890 and 1910. Often, punishment was handed down for minor infractions, harmless slights, or imagined insults.

Nine out of 10 black Americans lived in the South at the dawn of the 20th century. But a great migration occurred when, a decade later, blacks headed North. Conditions in the South had deteriorated because of the segregation laws, and economic opportunities were scarce for blacks. During World War I (1914–18) a labor shortage led northern businesses to look South, offering good jobs, free transportation, and low-cost housing to African Americans. From 1910 to 1940, over 1.6 million African Americans migrated, for the most part to major cities in the North (most notably New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit). The African American population of New York increased from 140,000 to 650,000 in just 30 years.

Life in the North may have been safer, but discrimination persisted, taking various forms. These included resistance to mixed-race neighborhoods and schools. The work of the politicized African American such as Langston Hughes was to seek not just equal treatment and equal opportunities, but acceptance. Hughes sought to persuade white America that the black person was a human being, equal to all.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an outpouring of cultural and political production of literature and art by African Americans in the 1920s. Langston Hughes, a key figure in the movement, gained international attention as the movement spread overseas. For Hughes (and for many black artists) the establishment of an international community of talented black men and women energized proponents of sweeping social change.

The center of activity was Manhattan's Harlem, a grand neighborhood developed originally for middle-class whites. As a result of overbuilding, however, Harlem was opened, reluctantly, to blacks. At the same time, national interest in African American culture was growing, along with the popularity of jazz and dance. The spectacular success on Broadway of the musical Shuffle Along (1921) brought white patrons and black artists together.

The hope of the black community rested in the idea that black artistic achievement in literature, painting, sculpture, and music would put to rest prejudiced assessments about black capability and enterprise. At the same time, major black political and cultural organizations were located in New York. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (formerly the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes), and the Universal Negro Improvement Association were all working together. Literary activity—especially poetry—was encouraged with the establishment of three important journals, The Crisis (1910), Messenger (1917), and Opportunity (1923). All three featured black literature and art, with an emphasis on poetry. The excitement on the streets was palpable, and as Langston Hughes put it, "the Negro was in vogue."

Literary Devices

Hughes employs a number of literary devices in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers":

anaphora: This technique repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses to provide a rhetorical effect. Hughes uses it in the poem's opening lines.

assonance: This technique uses the repetition of vowels to achieve an effect in a text. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" has many variations on letter o sounds, suggesting the flow of blood and water. In the opening stanza, for instance, readers will note the use of the words known, world, older, flow, and blood; and in the fourth line, soul and grown. The last two words are also repeated in the poem's final line.

enjambment: In several places in the poem, Hughes uses this technique in which a thought does not end at the end of a line.

personification: The speaker gives human qualities to inanimate objects in phrases such as "dawns were young" and "singing of the Mississippi."

repetition: Several key phrases using the word river are repeated: "I've Known rivers" appears in the first, second, and ninth lines, while the fourth and last lines are "My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

simile: This technique, a comparison using like or as, can be seen in the repeated phrase "grown deep like the rivers."

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