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Monday, 30 March 2015

The Negro speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

Literary Analysis (Summary)

Langston Hughes wrote this poem while travelling by train to visit his father in Mexico in 1920 when he was just 17. The poet, an African-American, gives a historical account of his deep connection with Africa, his ancestral root. The voice in the poem is that of a Negro in a predominantly white community. Years after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, the Black community was still suffering from racial discrimination in the American society despite the fact that they helped in building the American dream.

Prior to the freedom secured through the Emancipation Proclamation, the Black Americans were ex-slaves forcefully taken from Africa, their ancestral home, through the ocean to work in sugar cane plantation in America. After the freedom, they had no other place to call their home and so, they agitated for full integration into the American society as citizens with full constitutional rights. Having obtained the freedom they craved, still, the blacks were still treated with contempt and indignity. As a result, the blacks in America started activism towards asserting their humanity and significance in the egalitarian American nation.

The poem begins with the negro-speaker’s assertion that he has known rivers, certain rivers that are as “ancient as the world”. This gives credence to the biblical account of creation. According to the bible, the world was filled with water and without form until man was created on the sixth day. So, these rivers predate the existence of men, “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”

The poet-speaker continues, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Here, the poet likens the depth of his soul to four great ancient rivers: Euphrates, Congo, Nile and Mississippi. This brings to light the depth of the history and existence of black people. The depth of his soul also uncovers the deep experience of the poet in a time of racial intolerance, inequality and injustice in America. These deep experiences has made the poet realises that there is pride in blackness. Hence, he traces his root back to Africa.

The speaker talks of how he bathes “in the Euphrates”. The Euphrates is one of the four rivers in the biblical Garden of Eden. With that, the poet is tracing the African heritage to the time of creation and the beginning of the world, “when dawns were young.”

He also talks about building his house near the Congo River and the river has lulled him to sleep. The poet finds the Congo River, the deepest river in the world situated in West Central Africa, as a resting place full of comfort. In other words, the poet finds a sense of belonging in Africa as a place of comfort and freedom, without being racially abused.

Furthermore, the Negro talks of how he “looked upon the Nile” river in Egypt, the longest river in the world and he “raised the pyramids above it”. Ancient civilisation was said to have started around the Nile River banks where most cultural and historical sites are located. By this, the poet links Africa to the birth of civilization.

The poet also alludes to the visit of Abraham Lincoln to New Orleans through the Mississippi River when he was young. There, young Abe saw the horrors of slavery. That visit marked a new beginning in the Black American history.  Years later, when Abraham Lincoln became president of America, he proclaimed freedom for slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. “I heard the singing of the Mississippi” refers to the song of freedom that has made the plight of Black Americans “turn all golden in the sunset”.

In subsequent lines, the poet reiterates his claim that he has “known rivers”. These rivers are not just “ancient”, they are also “dusky” (dark) like the complexion of black men. The Negro-speaker reaffirms how his soul has grown deep like the rivers. The growth of his soul over the years as a black man in America has made him wise and experienced. He has realised that there is pride in being black. Therefore, re remembers his root.

There is pride in blackness
The treasure of African heritage
The desire for freedom
The growth of the human soul
Slavery and racism in America

Literary Devices

Allusion: This poem makes an elaborate use of allusion. It makes reference to the four great and ancient rivers linking them with the black race. The rivers are: Euphrates, Congo, Nile and Mississippi. The poem also makes a historical allusion to the visit of Abraham Lincoln across the Mississippi.  There is also a biblical allusion to river Euphrates in the Garden of Eden where he has taken his bathe “when dawns were young”. That is, black people were also in the Garden of Eden at the time of creation. So, black people have existed from the beginning of the world.  Hence, they should not be discriminated.

“I’ve known rivers” (Lines 1,2 and 11)
“My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Line 4 and 13)
These lines are repeated throughout the poem to create emphasis on the poet’s knowledge of the rivers and his link with them.

Personification: “I hear the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln…” (Line 8 &9)

Simile: “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world” (Line 2)
          “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Line 4 & 15)

Metaphor: “My soul has grown deep” (Line 4)
                   “muddy bossom” (Line 9&10)
                   “when dawns were young” (Line 5)

The poem is written in free verse with thirteen lines of uneven stanzas.

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