The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes: Summary and Analysis

The Negro Speaks of Rivers is one of Hughes’s most famous poems. The poem is written in first person speaker 'I' where the 'I' stand for all the African-American people and their collective voices for the freedom. This poem is also taken as the adoring acceptance of the poet’s own race and its root.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

This is the lyric expression to the black voice in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. In one hand, the speaker remembers the rivers like Euphrates, Nile, Congo and Mississippi while on the other hand, life in one way or other. By singing of them, Langston Hughes celebrates Afro-American culture and heritage.

The speaker in the poem asserts that he has known the rivers as, ‘ancient as the world,’ older than the blood that runs in our veins today. The speaker connects himself with his ancestors and root by locating them in different important rivers of the world. He time and again claims that ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers’ to depict the importance of these great rivers in his life. He claims that he in Euphrates River he has taken a bath, in mighty Congo he has built home, he has seen Nile River and the great pyramids being raised near it, and heard the Mississippi singing to welcome the historical leader Abraham Lincoln which turned into golden color.

When the speaker says 'I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young,' he focuses on the early civilization of his roots before any other civilizations of white people. By mentioning the Congo river and stating his hut is there, he again draws attention and state that African kingdom have already flourished in the ancient time. He proves that the great Egyptians Pyramids near the Nile River witnessed by him and his African roots. He brings historical reference of Abraham Lincoln and his praise by the Mississippi river. His prime focus is on the freedom which Lincoln supports.

The arrival of the Lincoln in the Mississippi and its changing color from muddy into golden in the sunset symbolically refers to the hope of freedom from the slavery of whites. Lincoln has been the symbol of freedom and liberation in the poem. The phrases like 'singing of the Mississippi' and 'turn golden' metaphorically stand for the call of freedom.

The repetetion of the phrase or the use of refrain ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers’ has some symbolic significance. It stands for speaker’s personal commitment to end the slavery. He too demands for freedom from the whites’ domination. In this respect, this poem is the advocacy of freedom.

The rivers like Euphrates, Congo, Nile and Mississippi in poem metaphorically stand for the freedom. As no one cannot tame the river and there is no bondage to the river, it is always free. By bringing examples of these great rivers of the world, the poet tries to justify that as freedom is natural to the rivers it should be natural to all the human species irrespective to their race, color and culture. The title ‘the Negro Speaks of Rivers’ then means ‘the Negro speaks of freedom.'

The poem is written in free verse and the poet uses anaphora. Anaphora means the repetition of the first word or phrase in each line: I bathed, I looked, I heard.