The Negro Speaks of Rivers | Study Guide

Langston Hughes

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The Negro Speaks of Rivers | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Langston Hughes's first published poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," is one of his most often anthologized. Written in 1920 and published a year later in Crisis magazine, it received immediate accolades and was included in Hughes's first verse collection, The Weary Blues, published in 1926.

Though the poem was written when Hughes was very young, its speaker is ageless, representative of black people throughout history. The rivers in the poem link the speaker to different aspects of black civilization and bring him back to the birth of humanity in the Tigris and Euphrates river valley. The poem is considered one of the foremost works of the Harlem Renaissance, an influential African American cultural and political movement of the 1920s.

1. Hughes wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" when he was only 17.

At age 17 Hughes was traveling from Illinois to visit his father in Mexico when the train crossed the Mississippi River. Inspired, he began to write. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was published in Crisis, which was the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When Jessie Fauset, editor of The Crisis, first read it, she asked W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American writer, editor, and civil rights activist who founded the organization, "What colored person is there, do you suppose, in the United States who writes like that and is yet unknown to us?"

2. Hughes composed the poem in about 15 minutes.

Hughes wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in "ten or fifteen minutes" on the back of an envelope holding a letter from his estranged father. Scholars see the poem as both a dialogue with his father and a tracing of the black experience, from its birth at the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the slavery and racism of black life along the Mississippi.

3. Hughes wrote a number of unpublished poems to an anonymous man whom he called "Beauty."

Though Hughes kept his personal life very private, scholars agree that he was gay. He wrote a number of poems to a man he called only "Beauty." There is no agreement about the identity of this man. In 1989 film director Isaac Julien created a movie, Looking for Langston, based on those poems. The film was blocked initially in the United States by Hughes's estate but was finally shown in 1990.

4. When Hughes's ashes were buried, writer Maya Angelou and others danced atop them.

On February 1, 1991, on Hughes's 89th birthday, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem had a dedication ceremony for its new Langston Hughes Auditorium. Though Hughes had died in 1967, the poet's ashes were interred beneath the floor of the auditorium in a midnight ceremony. Writers Amiri Baraka and poet Maya Angelou danced over the site in what the New York Times described as "an African custom of ancestral return."

5. Hughes had great-grandfathers on both sides who owned slaves.

Hughes knew his family history welland spoke of his great-grandfathers in these words:

On my father's side, the white blood in his family came from a Jewish slave trader in Kentucky, Silas Cushenberry, of Clark County, who was his mother's father ... On my mother's side, I had a paternal great-grandfather named Quarles―Captain Ralph Quarles―who was white and lived in Louisa County, Virginia, before the Civil War, and who had several colored children by a colored housekeeper, who was his slave.

Hughes's other great-grandfather on his father's side was also white and was a relative of the statesman and senator Henry Clay. Hughes didn't think of himself as black, noting that in Africa the word denoted someone without mixed ancestry.

6. Hughes communicated with a teenaged fan from Nigeria who called him father and whom he referred to as son.

In 1954 a young man from Nigeria named Chuba Nweke wrote to Hughes after reading one of his poems. Nweke noted, "Your thoughtful poem instilled a new life in me," and he asked if Hughes would read some of his writing. He signed his letter son. Hughes wrote back to him, stating that he was "very proud and flattered to be taken as a father by so ambitious a boy as yourself," and he agreed to read Nweke's writing. The two finally met and continued to correspond for several months. But Nweke was a demanding friend, and their relationship eventually faltered. Later Hughes developed another semipaternal relationship with a black policeman from Lagos.

7. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" inspired an enormous sculpture that bears lines from the poem.

In 2004 artists Robert Stackhouse and Carol Mickett created an enormous sculpture called Confluence from 100 tons of limestone for the Art Center of Indianapolis. The pieces of limestone, shaped by the artists with saws, hammers, and chisels, connect the Art Center to the White River. One of the slabs has chiseled on it, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," a line from Hughes's poem.

8. Hughes was designated class poet in grammar school, but the title was not meant entirely as a compliment.

Hughes didn't consider the title of class poet, which his eighth-grade classmates bestowed on him at Central School in Lincoln, Illinois, as a real honor. He claimed, somewhat jokingly, that he was given the title for reasons having nothing to do with his talent with words:

I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows—except us—that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me class poet. I felt I couldn't let my white classmates down, and I've been writing poetry ever since.

9. Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 to make a film about African Americans in the United States.

In 1932 Hughes went with a group of 22 African Americans to the Soviet Union to make a film about race relations in the United States. An activist named Louise Thompson brought the group together, convinced that the Soviet Union would be more sympathetic to them than Hollywood and less likely to present the African American experience through stereotypes. The project, titled Black and White, was never completed, though whether the reasons were political or creative were unclear. Hughes's response to its failure was:

O, Movies. Temperaments. Artists. Ambitions. Scenarios. Directors, producers, advisers, actors, censors, changes, revisions, conferences. It's a complicated art—the cinema. I'm glad I write poems.

10. Hughes's father, though black, was deeply prejudiced against other African Americans.

Hughes's father, James Hughes, despised the racism that infiltrated every aspect of American lifeand he despised the lack of power and the poverty African Americans suffered. James Hughes blamed African Americans for their own plight, however. He divorced Hughes's mother in 1907 and went to Mexico to escape the racism in the United States. Hughes spent a summer with his father after his junior year in high school and visited him again after he graduated, but their relationship was never easy or close.

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