The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Study Guide

Langston Hughes

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Themes


Interconnectedness of All Souls

Langston Hughes believed—as contemporary research across many disciplines indicates—that race is a social construct, all people are related, and prejudice can be eliminated with understanding. In the first volume of his autobiography, Hughes, a multiracial man, relates an experience in a restaurant in the South where the ambiguity of his appearance confirmed for him the random nature of racial prejudice. He was asked by a waiter whether he was black or Mexican, indicating that he could serve Hughes if he was Mexican but not if he was a Negro.

However, racist rhetoric up through the first half of the 20th century alleged that the Negro was subhuman, or more of an animal. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" addresses this aspect of racism by placing black people at the sources of civilization, places "ancient as the world" and when "dawns were young." By placing the Negro at the source of human life, the poem suggests that he is the first man, and with the poem's watery citations, he is the wellspring of humanity, the father of us all.

Rivers and the Bloodstream

In lines 2 and 3 of the poem, there is an elaborate setup of the idea that the rivers the speaker has known are older than known human life. The speaker says the rivers in the poem are "older than the flow of human blood in human veins," and the enjambed sentence repeats the word human, associating it with both flow and blood. In the lines to follow, the repetition introduces the notion of the world's great rivers streaming together in the deep soul of the Negro. In a figurative sense, human souls are interconnected by a network of veins just as the natural world is by a network of rivers.

The concept was not new. A section of Ralph Waldo Emerson's great 1841 essay, "The Over-Soul," an investigation of human intuition, opens with the notion that life is "mean," or small. In a section dedicated to the interconnectedness of all souls and their grandest productions—books, friendship, humanity, love—Emerson observes that communion is inevitable "because the heart of one is the heart of all ... one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and truly seen, its tide is one."

It is entirely likely that Emerson would have shown up in the early-century education of the young Langston Hughes. Regardless, the interconnectedness of images in these two works demonstrates the powerful organizing notion of the poem: the blood of one is the blood of all.

Nature of Black Speech

In his groundbreaking essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), Hughes declared, "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. ... We know we are beautiful. And ugly too." When the rivers in the poem turn colorful shades—"dusky," "golden," "muddy"—the changes suggest the various skin tones of people of color as well as the judgments associated with skin color variations. That is, "dusky" and "golden" are positive, while "muddy" stands in contrast. There was also a well-known preference among slaveholders for slaves with lighter complexions, a preference that filtered into the general population. According to the literary critic William Cook, Hughes argues for an art focusing on all "the low-down folk, the common people."

True to his argument, Hughes wrote in many voices, all part of black life in America. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" takes its tone and the ring of its repetitions from Negro spirituals, and its meter from the breath units of free verse that emulate black speech.

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