Critical Analysis of The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is one of the most influential African-American poets of the 20th century. He is often considered the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and wrote poetry about African-Americans in a way that was to inspire pride in their history and ties to Africa. He was also a social activist and columnist. Hughes told the story that he actually wrote this poem as a 17 year old. He was on a boat going down the Mississippi River on his way to see his father (who was living in Mexico at the time). Here you will find an Analysis of the negro speak of rivers.

Structure :
This poem is essentially a free verse, meaning that while there is no set structure for writing, it is written in a way to emphasize both rhythm and the flow of ideas that the author wishes to emphasize. The
structure is written with lines grouped together – when reading, imagine that the lines grouped together
are said together, with a slight break between groupings.

Analysis :

The Analysis of the negro speaks of rivers goes as below…

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

The author begins by introducing the idea of having "known rivers". The word known is used to mean "understand", and indicates an intimacy of knowledge. It is interesting that the author puts the knowledge in the past tense. As he goes on, it becomes obvious that he is referring to a legendary idea of knowing, as in he has heard stories of the mighty, ancient rivers. He makes a reference to a creation story by emphasizing that the rivers are as old as the world, but actually older than humanity. He concludes with a comparison to the flow of blood; both water and blood flow, but Hughes emphasizes that the water flowed before blood, or the idea that the Earth was made for people.

This metaphorical use of the river as a creation or life-giving metaphor becomes obvious when he states that his soul has become as deep as the river. This simile essentially mixes both of the metaphors into a personal discussion, and now ties the author directly into the mythology of the river; the author has become a part of the myths.

As the author has placed himself as an element of the myths, he is now able to place himself as a main character in each of the stories. He mentions living on the Euphrates, which has traditionally been seen as the point of Creation or the beginning of life. He reiterates the belief that this was the location where Man first lived through the statement that the "dawns were young"; this is a reference not to early morning, but to the fact that dawn(s) had not taken place before, and were taking place for the first times.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

This line is a reference to the idea of Africa being home to the author’s ancestors. A hut indicates not poverty, but a contentment with what is around, which is reiterated by the fact that he was "lulled…to sleep." The Congo, being one of the largest rivers on the continent, travels throughout Africa, and was also the home of many African empires. This use of a river that is tied so many different regions of Africa emphasizes the unity of the African-American population – while they came from different areas, they have a commonality that can be built on.

Continuing on to speak about the Nile and the pyramids, the author is again tying himself to another of history’s greatest feats. The idea that the river has tied him to this major feat is then repeated, but this time with the Mississippi River. Interestingly, the author places Abraham Lincoln, and assumebly the emancipation of American slaves, on par with the building of the pyramids, emphasizing the importance of emancipation to the author. Finishing this section of lines, he mentions how the muddy waters of the Mississippi turn golden in the sunset; the idea that something so dirty and ugly in the light can grow beautiful in time is a metaphor that can be applied to many things. However, the author is most likely using it to explain the role slavery had in the creation of the American society. He sees slavery as a horrible and ugly thing to happen, but as it passed and slavery ended, America became beautiful because of the shared history between the races. This idea that the African-American people are part of a beautiful picture of America aligns with the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance, which included pride in African-American heritage, culture, and arts.

The author concludes with the following lines:

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

These lines are repetitive, and read essentially like the memories. The "ancient, dusky river" is a subtle reference to the end of a day, or a metaphorical death. However, again the speaker is placing themselves in the mythological line – they have been appended to the myth. The final line is said as a repetitive reminder that learning from the past and understanding where one (or one’s culture) comes from is key to understanding where both the present and the future.

Themes :
One theme that is visible is the importance of heritage or history. The author draws their metaphors directly from historical events, and then explains the importance of the later or present events not in words, but in comparison to the important historical events. In this way, he is essentially explaining the level of importance that his generation has based on the effect past generations had on the world.

Summary :
The author claims to have known ancient rivers that are older than humanity. He compares the depth of his soul to the rivers. He refers to the importance of the Euphrates and Congo to human history. He then specifically points out the magnitude of the Nile and Egypt’s pyramids. Then, he compares the events surrounding Abraham Lincoln on the Mississippi River to the importance of the other rivers. He concludes by reiterating the idea that he is tied to the rivers, and that his soul has grown as deep as the rivers.

Recitation of the Poem is also provided below by Langston Hughes