The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Study Guide

Langston Hughes

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Symbols


The Rivers

The rivers, as does water in general, suggest the streams of life. Moreover, the phrase "My soul has grown deep like the rivers" is a key repetition in which the verb, "has grown," is central. Rivers grow deep by a natural process that takes place over a very long period. That process reflects Earth's participation in the atmosphere, a matter of wind and weather. A soul that has weathered like the rivers is not only old and deep but has also sustained the ravages of time. And the soul's growth—its depth—is the achievement of its suffering.

In addition, each river mentioned has a specific symbolic function within the larger symbol. The Euphrates, evoking the "cradle of civilization," represents the origins of humanity, while the Congo evokes the origins of black people. The Nile represents the origins of Western civilization; and finally, the "singing" Mississippi, in its association with Abraham Lincoln, conjures up the hymns and suffering of the slaves as well as the celebration of emancipation.


The speaker mentions color in relation to the rivers several times, in ways that resonate with the poem's treatment of race. First, the speaker observes of the Mississippi, "I've seen its muddy / bosom turn all golden in the sunset." "Muddy" suggests a dark brown color, which lightens to "golden" because of the setting sun—perhaps referencing the literal mixing of blood that results in mixed-race people such as Hughes himself. The use of both muddy and golden to describe the river could also suggest the spectrum of African American skin tones. Then, in the penultimate line, the speaker references "ancient, dusky rivers"—"dusky" again suggesting a dark color, and again tying the rivers to the racial identity of the speaker.

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