Close reading of The Negro Speaks of Rivers by L.Hughes

Langston Hughes was considered one of the principal and prominent voices of Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s. His poetry encompasses heterogeneity of subject matters and motifs concerning working African-Americans who were excluded and deprived of power. His choice of theme was accentuated and manifested through the convergence of African-American vernacular and blues forms. My attempt is to analyze the implications of the most significant poems by first introducing the author, examining the relevance of the poems and then, contrast them with Richard Wright’s antagonistic perspective.
Langston Hughes (born in 1902) became one of the major representatives of the Harlem Renaissance. His priority was to capture the Negro essence and manifest it through his writings omitting racial stereotypes. His first volume of poetry was published in 1926 and it was sponsored by wealthy patrons. In the 1930s, Hughes got involved in politics, and joined the American Communist Party because of its intention to suppress race as the latent and deciding factor of social class. The most idiosyncratic feature that characterizes Hughes is, and as Johnson and Farrell point out, that he is “the first poet in the world to transform the idioms of blues and jazz into poetic verse”. Hughes’s career displays the solidity of the Harlem Renaissance as the basis of modern African American literature.
His first published poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” became an emblematic literary piece and it established his early reputation among African-American writers. The speaker of the poem describes the rivers to be ancient and then he identifies himself with the rivers saying that [his] “soul has grown deep like the rivers”. He then enumerates different rivers (Nile, Euphrates and Mississippi) and places with historical implications: Congo and New Orleans. The latter appears in the same line with Lincoln, which clearly alludes to emancipation of the slaves. The poem ends with the repetition of the line “my soul has grown deep like the rivers”, which emphasizes the significance of identifying his soul with the rivers, establishing some similarities which we will examine further.
As a whole, the poem can be seen as “a claim of racial identity, of shared consciousness, of a Negro intersubjectivity in which old world and new world stand together in a mutual relationship that predates European civilization” (Warren 1993, p.392).The shared consciousness is conveyed by the multiple allocation of the “I”: that is, the diversity of places and events the “I” had witnessed may illustrate a more collective view. Hence, the constant use of the lyrical “I” as the whole African American community highlights the importance of cultural and traditional contribution that Afro-Americans made to the European civilization. Hughes in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” also touches upon this influential contribution saying that “the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears”. In other words, the Afro-American community can enrich our experience, but not only in literature, as Hughes points out in the essay, but in the culture and history.
Methodologically, the poetic voice has its own peculiarities. Shuman (2002, p. 742) delineates the essence of the voice by saying that “Hughes assumes the voice of historical consequence, speaking for his people in a poetic tradition as old as Homer and the Greek epics. The calm, measured tone of the first lines, with their mood of quiet confidence […] connects the present with the long passage of time”. Thus, the voice sets up a historical atmosphere by employing a peaceful tone which will last throughout the poem. The speaker stimulates this historicity through referring to the great rivers of the world which are closely related to the continents where human civilizations originated. It is worth mentioning that although the speaker moves across time from “the Euphrates when dawns were young” alluding to the cradle of the civilization to the emancipation of slaves in America, he remains timeless. Marisa Parham (2007) identifies a correlation between water and the human blood in the line “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/ flow of human blood in human veins”, and she comments that “it is through the construction of this identity-potentiate that Hughes is able to articulate a mobile and fluid subject, and enunciative “I” who has become as ahistorical as water itself”. She continues explaining that Hughes positions himself as the Negro of rivers by maintaining his own timelessness as an experiential fact. This timelessness is comparable to “the lack of distance between the poem’s geographical sites”; hence, she suggests that we should read rivers as blood: “blood that flows across the landscape of time and space and through all Negroes”. Following her suggestion, the river represents numerous I’s that in fact are expressed by one I. This “I”, as previously introduced, is an active and historical witness of his own past: I bathed; I built; I looked; I heard; I’ve known. Parham emphasizes the circular structure of the poem by clarifying that it ends with the instant of its own genesis, returning to “[m]y soul has grown deep like the rivers”, which stands for universal soul.
Apart from clarifying the analogy of blood with rivers, Parham mentions that the poem is heliocentric. Although she mentions it and does not analyze it in depth, it is interesting to develop this aspect of the poem. As we can see, in the third stanza begins with the dawn “when dawns are young” and it ends with the sunset “turn all golden in the sunset”, illustrating the beginning and ending of a day. In addition, in the middle of the stanza, there are also allusions towards the stages of the day, such as “lulled me to sleep”, which suggests the night; and “raised the pyramids above it”, which may refer to the moment when we wake up, that is the sunrise. All these elements contribute to the circularity of the poem, which we commented previously. In other words, the fact that the third stanza depicts clearly a day, indicating its beginning and end, determines the poem’s pattern, where the time is obviously highlighted.
Up to this point, we established that the collective “I” involves historical connotations, but we did not analyze its implications on a general level. The succession of rivers associated with the African American heritage evokes a mystical sense of the constant presence of the “I”. The voice proclaims its presence throughout the historical events that influenced African American community: the construction of the “pyramids”; slavery and obtaining freedom, “Mississippi”, etc. Thus, Jeff Westover (2002) stresses the idea of African American undergoing the phenomenon of diaspora, which he explains as follows:
The poem insists on the historical reality of the African diaspora, for the memory it conveys is geological, older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. But as a speech-act, the printed transcript of an oral chant, the poem calls into being diasporan consciousness.
The writer also points out the unity that this community shares despite of it disparate geography and he continues saying that “[t]he speaker announces his knowledge for benefit of his listeners, telling the story of a common past in order to cultivate a united consciousness in the present”. Indeed, it can be interpreted as a sort of a celebration of their origins, closely related to an anthem nurturing this shared consciousness that we have been commenting. Carrying on with Westover’s approach, there is a clear emphasis on the audience. The “I” encompasses an individual and the community whom he addresses, which is a typical and the most representative feature of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Whitman’s Song of Myself includes an important quote which we can apply in Hughes’s poem; in the stanza 52, Whitman affirms “I am large, I contain multitudes”. Hence, Westover reflects on this idea and asserts that the poem serves as an act for building diasporan unity and that “[t]he poem attempts to transcend the boundaries of the national by imaging its audience as a global community”. This implies some nationalistic property, in which the listener or the audience is relevant and gets involved in the action that the poem presents.
                Let us go a step further in the interpretation and establish another association.So far, we identified the speaker with the rivers, and at the same time the “I” projects an exuberant individual and a community. However, these assimilations lead to relate the rivers to the community itself: in the denouement “[m]y soul has grown deep like the rivers”, “my soul” does not allude to the speaker’s soul, but to all African American souls. Thus, the souls ‘behave’ like the rivers; they are ancient and grew deep: this could mean that the community filled with pride should not forget about their origins and heritage, because they are ancient, meaningful and substantial. And although the community suffered disdain and contempt, it remains strong as the rivers. This strength is reflected and highlighted by the repetitions of the line “[m]y soul has grown deep like the rivers”, and the sense of deepening into something, and even so, it resists.
                As for the title of the poem, there are several aspects that should be explained carefully. The title “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” contains the word “speak” which can be seen in two ways. Parham (2007) suggests that the first interpretation can be connected with the fact that:
To speak is to say, to tell of or to something actively: the Negro is the speaking subject. To speak, however, can also be interpreted as an adjectival gesture: the Negro “speaks of”, as in reminds one of, bespeaks, rivers.
In both senses, the verbal action of “speaking” is emphasized, but they differ in their consideration. Thus, we are facing with the speaker, which provides some sort of information, but at the same time, this speaker is in position to reclaim the origins in Africa: a sort of ambassador who preserves and defends the permanency of memory concerning cultural legacy.
                The poem oozes exhilaration, expectation and optimism. Its mood is calm, placid and smooth, like the river: the shape of the poem contributes visually to establish a comparison between the poem and a river. Even the prosodic feature of enjambment also implies the calm behavior of a river. However, it is worth mentioning that each author belonging to the Harlem Renaissance treats the theme differently. For example, Zora Neale Hurston prefers to contemplate Negro’s essence as something individual, and she highlights the importance of individualism in her works. Additionally, there is a contemporary of Langston Hughes whose approach is totally distinct from the one which Harlem Renaissance exhibits: Richard Wright. Both writers are concerned with the folklore which encompasses memories and hopes of struggling for freedom, but they differ in the representation of it. While Wright’s suggestion (1937) is based on “writing addressed to the Negro himself, his needs, his sufferings, his aspirations”, and eliminating the gap between the Negro and writers, that the writers create with their writings; Hughes includes himself in the community, and writes about the importance of the past in the future. Hence, Wright is this case is more individualistic, and more pessimistic; whereas Hughes shows his optimism encouraging pride in the African American folklore and aesthetic.
                To sum up, a brief introduction was provided to the author and the poem itself, presenting the most relevant thematic properties. We proceeded with the identifications of the poem, which suggested many interpretations that were included above. Within a short poem, we have seen that there are aspects that have to be analyzed carefully such as the audience, speaker and the implications of both in the comprehension of the poem. Eventually, a global view of the poem was compared with other writers like Hurston or Wright, which shows the reader the complexity of the treatment of the same topic throughout the literary movements.
Works Cited
Johnson, Patricia A., and Walter C. Farrell, Jr. "How Langston Hughes Used the Blues."JSTOR. Web. 26 Dec. 2011. <>.
Parham, Marisa. "Hughes, Cullen, and the In-sites of Loss." ELH 74.2 (2007): 429-447. Project MUSE. Web. 31 Dec. 2011. <>.
Shuman, R. Baird. Great American Writers: Twentieth Century. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2002. Print.
Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington (Ind.):   Indiana UP, 2003. Print.
Westover, Jeff. "Africa/America: Fragmentation and Diaspora in the Work of Langston Hughes." JSTOR. Web. 28 Dec. 2011.
Witalec, Janet. The Harlem Renaissance: a Gale Critical Companion. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Print.
Wright, Richard. "Blueprint for Negro Writing." Double-take: a Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. By Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001. Print.

Author: Me.