The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

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

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Summary and Analysis

Lines 1-3

The poem begins with the speaker talking about his relationship and acquaintance with rivers. Rivers have existed right from the day our civilisation began. Some of the most important and ancient human settlements began alongside rivers. These rivers have to been witness to human history and the speaker is familiar with their legacy. The poet compares the blood that flows in our veins to the flow of these timeless rivers. They have been there even before we were created as a race.

In line 3, the poet likens his soul to the depth of these rivers. His mind is now aligned with the history that these rivers have witnessed. It is as if he is now one with these historically significant rivers and can feel what they have felt till today.

Lines 4-7

These next four lines all begin with an “I”. He is basically situating himself in historically important events to provide credibility to the role of “negroes” in building the world as we see it today. He begins with the river Euphrates where he says he took a bath when humans were fairly new to the world. One of the longest rivers of the world, Euphrates runs through the south of Turkey and enters Iraq. Babylon, one of the kingdoms of Mesopotamia was constructed on the banks of Euphrates.

Next he talks about Congo which is the second longest river in Africa. It is deeply etched in the making of the African nation as the river runs through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Republic of Congo and Angola. The poet lived in a hut near the Congo and slept to the soothing rhythm of the river nearby.

Then he talks about the longest river of the world, the Nile. He and his people were part of the workforce who build the pyramids for the Egyptians and lived alongside the Nile while crafting history. The entire Egyptian civilisation depended on the Nile for their livelihood. So even if white people do not want to give any credit to the contributions of the black people, Hughes is making sure to change the written history.

In the next line, he talks about the river Mississippi which flows in North America. He talks about Abraham Lincoln and his trip to New Orleans through the river. As a child, Lincoln used to guide a boat in the river and witnessed slavery firsthand. He passed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 that played a huge role in transforming the lives of millions of African Americans.

The poet also mentions how he saw the muddy river turn golden during sunset. This shows that it doesn’t matter how muddy or dirty the waters are, they can still change. It can be a reference to the lives of African Americans which was equivalent to dirt for the white masters. Now, they had a voice and change was the order of the day.

Lines 8-10

These lines are a repetition of the first three lines with slight changes. He reasserts how he has always known these rivers all his life. This also goes on to stress how black people’s lives have always had multiple dimensions not talked about before. Because of the connection he has with these extremely crucial rivers which have served as lifelines for many civilisations, he is able to concretise his race’s presence through them. He is proud of his race and all these dusky and ancient rivers bear testimony to African people’s elemental role in continually shaping human history. The concluding line is an exact repetition of line 3 where the poet reiterates how his soul is as old and as deep as the rivers he talked about.

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