The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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Rachel Montpelier
Professor Counihan
English 200W, Section 1
November 1, 2011
The Narrator’s Roots in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
According to his biography in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature,
Langston Hughes traveled to many different places as a child and often “was a part of a small,
sometimes tiny community of blacks” (“Langston Hughes” 1289). Hughes was “profoundly
attached” to these communities, and this connection to community is evident within his work. In
Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the narrator has an intense tie with black
communities from the past and uses the image of a river as well as repetition and allusion to
show the common ground between the poem’s narrator and his past.
A very significant aspect of the poem is the fact that the narrator uses the image of rivers
throughout the poem. The image of rivers not only cites the communities of past black cultures
and the narrator’s ancestors, it also further describes the narrator’s ties to his roots. The Oxford
English Dictionary defines “river” as a noun that is “a large natural stream of water flowing in a
channel to the sea, lake or another, usually larger, stream of the same kind.”
This definition
gives greater meaning to the poem, itself. Rivers themselves connect to a larger body of water
“of the same kind.” It is a part of nature and the connection to the larger bodies of water is
constant. This fact about rivers is similar to the narrator’s situation: He feels a constant
connection to his ancestors, the people who are like him. When the narrator claims that “My
soul has grown deep like the rivers,” he claims that his ties to the past have grown stronger and
the fact that his ancestors are a part of his identity will never change (Hughes 3, 10). The
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definition of an actual river shows the deep and everlasting pride and connection the narrator has
to his past.
In addition to the general image of rivers, the narrator describes the rivers of his cultural
past. He recognizes the rivers’ beauty, as well as the flaws within them. For example, as the
narrator describes the Mississippi River, he proclaims “I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all
golden in the sunset” (Hughes 7). This line shows how the narrator is able to see the negative,
ugly aspects of his roots, as well as the “golden” or beautiful parts of it as well (Hughes 7). The
negative aspect of the narrator’s roots in the Mississippi River is the memory of slavery. The
violence and inhumanity of slavery contributes to the negative connotations to the Mississippi.
However, President Lincoln’s visit to the river, as a boy, is when “his determination to end
slavery” began (Hughes f.n. 1). This historical fact connects to the positive aspects of the
Mississippi. It is a place associated with slavery, but it also has a connection to the president that
freed the slaves. The narrator also states that he has “known rivers:/Ancient dusky rivers”
(Hughes 8-9). The word “dusky” suggests that the narrator’s heritage is associated with darkness
and sadness, instead of light and happiness.
This sentiment goes along with the Hughes’
perspective. His work spoke for a large group of black intellectuals who wanted to show that
their cultural history is important, even the negative parts of it. Langston Hughes’ views became
essential to those who wanted to “explore and exploit allegedly degraded aspects of black life”
(“Langston Hughes” 1290). The narrator knows that his heritage is not perfect but is also aware
that there are important parts to it, as well. It is obvious that the narrator feels pride for the past
black communities that he remembers in the poem and can identify the positive and negative
aspects of those cultures.
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Along with the recognition of the unpleasant and beautiful parts of his ancestry, the
narrator also identifies the specific cultures that these ancestors inhabited. The narrator identifies
them with allusions to famous rivers in the world. The narrator claims “I built my hut near the
Congo and it lulled me to sleep” (Hughes 4). Also, the narrator states “I looked upon the Nile
and raised the pyramids above it” (Hughes 6). The narrator describes these two cultures as
though he was actually there, experiencing the river near the hut and constructing the pyramids
The narrator cannot possibly be doing both of those things, but the fact that he
describes himself at that river is significant. This hyperbole suggests that the narrator is speaking
for his long gone ancestors and proclaiming that their lives were an important part of history and
of the narrator’s life. The description of the narrator’s ancestry at the Congo River has a
peaceful, calm tone, and is an indicator of the positive parts of the narrator’s heritage. The area
that the Congo is literally very beautiful and “is densely covered…with tropical vegetation”
(“Congo”). This description of the Congo is a contrast to what the narrator’s ancestors probably
experienced in the area. The Congo River is located in a part of Africa that was a major part of
the slave trade (Fage). The narrator chooses to focus on the positive, beautiful aspects of the
Congo in order to convey how not all of his history is associated with pain and suffering. Some
of his ancestors’ experiences were peaceful and happy. Along with the Congo, the Nile is a
positive part of the narrator’s ancestry. The Nile River, which “was the cradle of Egyptian
civilization,” is a place of creation and is where his ancestors built “the Great Pyramids and the
statue of the Great Sphinx” (“Nile”). The fact that the narrator views the pyramids as a positive
aspect of his roots is surprising since the slaves were the primary builders of the structures
(Baines). The fact that the narrator is brief about this negative part of his history suggests that he
is mostly concerned with his ancestors and their achievements. These allusions emphasize the
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narrator’s point of view when it comes to his culture. These civilizations were a major part of
the narrator’s history. He not only feels a tie to it, he feels that he is a part of it, as well.
These allusions to rivers within the poem connect to a literary pattern during the Harlem
Renaissance. This movement among black artists inspired “intellectuals to look on their African
heritage with new eyes” (Hutchinson). The Harlem Renaissance also provided these intellectuals
with “a desire to reconnect with a heritage long despised or misunderstood by both whites and
blacks” (Hutchinson). This desire to learn more about his heritage and ancestors is exactly what
the narrator is doing within the poem. He expresses his pride in his ancestors and to show how
these past cultures are part of his current identity. Also, as the narrator describes the rivers that
connect to his roots, he is providing information about himself and his current culture. When the
narrator states “I’ve known rivers,” he is speaking for all of his ancestors who have lived near
these historical rivers in order to show the solidarity within black communities (Hughes 1, 2, 8).
The narrator’s effort to connect to his roots is major part of what the Harlem Renaissance was
Finally, the narrator uses repetition to express how dedicated he is to his roots. The
narrator repeats the phrase “I’ve known rivers” three times (Hughes 1, 2, 8). The fact that the
narrator repeatedly uses this phrase emphasizes how close he is to the past cultures and rivers
and how he feels proud of them. The repetition produces a dignified, assured tone. The narrator
is positive that these rivers have influenced his life and will continue to be a major part of
history, and he feels very proud of them. The fact that the narrator is proud of his past and his
heritage connects to another component of the Harlem Renaissance.
The movement had
“reconceptualized ‘the Negro’ apart from white stereotypes that had influenced black peoples’
relationship to their heritage” (Hutchinson).
In effect, the movement helped black people
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establish their own sense of identity, separate from the whites, through their own culture and
heritage. When the narrator says “I’ve known rivers,” the reader understands that he has known
past black cultures. The narrator’s pride and connection to his heritage echoes the burgeoning
pride of black culture that was evident during the Harlem Renaissance. Also, the narrator repeats
the line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” twice (Hughes 3, 10). This separate repetition
appears in order to communicate how the rivers of past cultures are a part of the narrator’s
identity. The memories of the narrator’s ancestors weigh heavily on his soul and are on his mind
as much as the actual rivers. The memories are not negative, but they are significant. They are a
part of the narrator’s life that he takes seriously and a part he will never forget. The repetition
appears in the poem to further emphasize how important the past is to the narrator and his life.
Langston Hughes created a niche for himself in the black communities he inhabited as a
child. This connection to community is evident throughout his poem, “The Negro Speaks of
Rivers.” Throughout the poem, the narrator describes the rivers of past black communities and
states that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Hughes 3, 10). This sentiment emphasizes
just how much the narrator feels connected to his past roots. He is confident that the people of
his past are important and feels a pull to the communities that they inhabited. The narrator uses
allusion to describe the specific rivers and communities and repetition to stress how these rivers
are a part of his life. Even the word river is significant: it is a connection to the notion of
heritage and ancestry itself. Each literary technique works together to show how the cultures of
the narrator’s heritage affect him and how he considers them a crucial part of his identity. A
large part of the narrator’s personality is the result of the black communities of his history.
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Baines, John R. “Ancient Egypt.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 27 Oct 2011.
“Congo.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. EBSCO. Web. 12 Oct 2011.
Fage, John D. “Western Africa.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 27 Oct 2011.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The Norton Anthology of African American
Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton
& Company, 2004. 1291. Print.
Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 4 Oct 2011.
“Langston Hughes.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 12881291. Print.
“Nile.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. EBSCO. Web. 12 Oct 2011.
“River.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 4 Oct 2011.
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