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The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Page history last edited by Alexandra Howard 15 years, 7 months ago


I've[1] known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood[2] in human veins.[3]



My soul has grown deep like the rivers[4].




I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.[5]

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it[6].

I heard the singing of the Mississippi[7] when Abe Lincoln  [8]   

     went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy     

     bosom turn all golden in the sunset. [9]


I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky[10] rivers.






My soul[11] has grown deep like the rivers.[12]


  1. One thing that stands out in this poem is the use of "I." Many of the other Harlem Renaissance poets used "we" as the narrator in their poems to represent African-American sentiments. The use of the first person singular in this poem is interesting because an important aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the large community of African-Americans in Harlem, but Hughes is not connecting himself with this community by using "I." Why didn't he use "we" because the subject matter of the poem refers to African-American history, not just Hughes' history? Maybe the "I" is the each African-American- not the community- but each person individually.
  2. Hughes emphasizes the importance of human ties to the great rivers of the world. From early civilizations, humans have depended on the major rivers that are mentioned below, and cities flourished from their natural treasures and the opportunity of trade.
  3. The past perfect tense of "know" is used, indicating that it means not only being familiar with the rivers, but actively engaging in the act of knowing them. Hughes' speaker has not only learned about the ancient rivers, but has immersed himself in them and built his life around them. The use of this action suggests the flowing nature of heritage, which exceeds the bounds of human life and captures individual lives within its constant, neverending motion.
  4. Hughes is using the imagery of rivers as a means of talking about culture and roots. The rivers he mentions are the lifelines to several distinct cultures in Egypt, America, Africa, etc. Therefore, Hughes is comparing his spiritual growth to the roots and culture representative of the noted rivers.
  5. By talking of himself as if he had lived near those rivers in ancient times, the speaker is connecting his African American heritage to the early civilizations of Africa and the Middle East, and perhaps proving it's importance to those who look down on him.
  6. This powerful line elicits the notion of existentialism from an african american perspective. From the very beginning of the poem, the poet utilizes "I" in order to emphasize the importance of the self in relation to the universe. "I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it" The idea of raising the pyramids contributes to the power and ability of the african american individual to manipulate the environment. In this philosophy, the world is completely meaningless and the only thing of truth is the individual. The poets ability to have experienced this places within the conscious emphasizes the power of the african american mindset and culture in which oppression cannot affect the expansion of the self
  7. The rivers mentioned in the poem (Euphrates, Congo, Nile, and Mississippi) create a spatial setting for the poem. Hughes claims that his "soul has grown deep like the rivers." These rivers are well-known. Because they are well-known, the reader has some idea of what Hughes points out about each one, for example the Nile and the pyramids in Egypt. I guess that by using the rivers, Hughes is able to point to ancestry/cultures around these prominent rivers.
  8. In this poem about "Rivers," the only person mentioned with the exception of "l" is "Abe Lincoln." Like the ancient rivers that the speaker has known such as Euphrates and Nile,by calling Abraham Lincoln "Abe Lincoln" he offers a note of familiarity with this historical character.It is not a surpise that Lincoln holds a significant meaning in the speaker's mind. It was his Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves and his effort that made the adoption of Thirteenth Amendment into US Constitution possible, officially abolishing slavery. In effect, Lincoln was the major figure who directly contributed to the legal transition of African Americans from enslavement to a freedom and the phase between the "dawns"and the "sunset."
  9. When Hughes talked about the Mississippi River, specifically how he saw New Orleans turn from muddy to golden, he is clearly referring to the social improvement of African Americans. Hughes also uses the image of sunset in this description as well, which connotates a sense of hope. Together the description of the mudd turning to gold and the sunset create an image of a positive, progressing ending to a long day's struggle, which is representative of the situation at the time for African Americans.
  10. The word "dusky" here is used in multiple contexts. Dusky can mean dim or dark (lacking light). In this sense, the poem follows a sort of sunset as "dusky" comes after "golden". Also, dusky can mean, directly, "dark skin". This directly ties these rivers specifically to a african/african-american population. This one of the ways in which the poem is slightly limited, exclusively targeting african americans as a reader. Because these ancient rivers are dusky, they are the past of the African American, and not humanity as a whole.
  11. The word "soul" brings another aspect to the deeper meaning behind the poem. In the previous lines, a historical account is given. The lines describe what happened, a historical perspective. When Hughes then describes his soul, a more personal, spiritual perspective emerges. The historical account along with the perspective of humanity merges to grow "deep like the rivers."
  12. The rivers in this poem symbolize consistency among the human race. The idea that the same blood is coursing through all of our veins is encouraged.

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