The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Study Guide

Langston Hughes

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is written in free verse (i.e., without rhyme) and is divided into five parts, or stanzas.

Stanza 1

The first stanza consists of two sentences joined by a colon, each starting with the words "I've known rivers." The colon indicates that the speaker will explain or define what he means by the initial statement in the lines to follow. The first thing he means, as literally stated in the second sentence, is that he has known very old rivers.

The speaker repeats the opening three words in a refrain (a grouping of words repeated for emphasis): "I've known rivers." The technique, also called anaphora, emphasizes the thought that some of the rivers the speaker has known are as old as the physical world and thus have occurred before the birth of humankind.

Stanza 2

The second stanza is a single line in which the speaker reports that his soul has grown deep like rivers. The simile, with its use of like, compares the soul's growth to the process of the development of a river over time. The rivers carve their depth and acquire their shape over millennia, a natural process that is gradual and often violent. The same, then, can be said for the speaker (and the black people he represents). The course of human history has produced the depth of his soul. It goes back to the very beginning of life.

Stanza 3

The third stanza consists of three end-stopped sentences (that is, the ends of the sentences fall at the end of the lines) and a fourth sentence that occupies three lines (that is, these lines are enjambed so that the poetic line and the grammatical line do not coincide). Each sentence names a major river and indicates the life stage of the speaker who has been present in each case, marking a domestic or historical moment on the banks. The poem moves from the Euphrates in the Middle East to the Congo in Africa and on to the Nile in Egypt. The longer final sentence locates the speaker in the New World and the Mississippi River, invoking Abraham Lincoln and a sunset that turns the muddy river to gold.

Stanza 4

The fourth stanza consists of the organizing refrain, "I've known rivers," joined by a colon to the short, descriptive phrase, "Ancient, dusky rivers." The stanza's first sentence repeats the opening, "I've known rivers." The second describes them as "ancient," a word repeated from the second sentence of the opening stanza, and "dusky," a word that reiterates the description of the "muddy" bosom of the Mississippi in the previous stanza. The presence of the colon and its location after the repeated phrase "I've known rivers," encourages the reader to consider that "dusky" in this position refers back to the "flow of human blood" similarly situated in the first stanza. Also, the "singing" of the Mississippi is an example of personification—a human attribute assigned to an inanimate form.

Stanza 5

The fifth and final stanza, a single line, is a repetition of the single line of the second stanza: "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." In the repetition, there is an affirmation that the important idea here is not just the depth of the river but the growth of the soul, a matter of human history as well as natural history.

Analysis

Composition and Background

The literary critic Arnold Rampersad reports that Langston Hughes scribbled the poem on the back of an envelope in 1920, on a train crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis. Hughes was on his way south to visit his father in Mexico. The sunset on the river and perhaps his complex relationship with his father and his own racially mixed identity inspired his reflection on the origins of the Negro. This moment of openness and vulnerability produced a poem of great strength. Hughes's lifelong project, as expressed in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," begins with the certainty that there is no difference among human beings based on differences in skin color—blacks have the same depth of soul and connection to history as all other humans. His life's work was to disseminate that truth. Hughes dedicated "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" to W.E.B. Du Bois, a fellow black writer and leader of the Harlem Renaissance. A political activist and scholar, Du Bois, who was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, founded the NAACP and promoted education for black Americans.

Structure and Free Verse

To say that a poem is in free verse is not to say that the poem has no shape or intentional structure. The structural symmetries of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," based on a line count and repeated and related language at the beginning and ends of the lines, formally support the oracular tone. Equally, the symmetries support the speaker's conviction that the history of the Negro within the history of civilization creates an imperative for the equality of black and white peoples.

The balanced arrangement of the stanzas creates an interesting structure. The poem consists of five stanzas. Counting the sentences in each stanza, the pattern made is 2-1, 4, 2-1.

Woven into that pattern are the final words in the 2-1 sequences—that is, the last words looking at the first and second stanza as one group of sentences, and the fourth and fifth stanza as another. The closing words of each complete sentence in the first two stanzas are "rivers," "veins," and "rivers." Then, the closing words of each sentence in the last pair of stanzas are "rivers," "rivers," "rivers." The effect is to create a frame connecting rivers and human blood to contain the central four sentences. These begin: "I bathed," "I built," "I looked," "I heard." All are basic human experiences. Thus, the poem's structure emphasizes the way in which the story of black origins is tied to fundamental human experience.

Along with the balanced structure, the poem operates out of a key simile, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." The repeated image links the expansive depths of the soul of the Negro (whose history encompasses the violence of slavery) with the depth of rivers as they increase over time. The comparison stresses that overcoming violence or force is linked to growth.

Place

Geography plays an important role in the "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." In the third stanza, the speaker names rivers from all over the world. All of these rivers had slave-holding cultures on their banks.

  • The Euphrates, which runs through western Asia, watered the "cradle of civilization" called Mesopotamia (Greek, meaning "between two rivers," the Tigris and Euphrates). Between 5000 BCE and 6 CE, the Sumerians were a stratified culture, consisting of nobles, commoners, and slaves.
  • The Congo, which runs through central Africa, was the site of a great kingdom. By 1484 the Congolese were involved in trade with the Portuguese, which involved copper, ivory, and slaves. The slave trade did not end until the late 1800s.
  • The Nile, which runs through northern Africa, is commonly associated with the Hebrew slaves who raised the pyramids.
  • The Mississippi, which runs through the central part of the United States, is associated with the American slave trade. This association is emphasized by the references to Abraham Lincoln (the president whose Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in January 1863) and "singing," a means for enslaved African Americans to assert their humanity. Lincoln traveled to New Orleans as a youth in 1828 where he was first exposed to the degradation of a slave marketplace.
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