Black Identity

Jean Wagner: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes's first poem, published in The Crisis in June, 1921, attracted the attention it did precisely because its author revealed the acute sensitivity to the racial past that Garvey, with his racial romanticism, was then trying to instill in the minds of all. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" heralded the existence of a mystic union of Negroes in every country and every age. It pushed their history back to the creation of the world, and credited them with possessing a wisdom no less profound than that of the greatest rivers of civilization that humanity had ever known, from the Euphrates to the Nile and from the Congo to the Mississippi. . . .

Yet unlike Countee Cullen, and perhaps because he was the only poet of the Negro Renaissance who had a direct, rather disappointing contact with Africa, Hughes rarely indulges in a gratuitous idealization of the land of his ancestors. If, in spite of everything, the exaltation of African atavism has a significant place in his poetry up to 1931, the reason is merely that he had not yet discovered a less romantic manner that would express his discomfort at not being treated in his own country as a citizen on a par with any other. If he celebrates Africa as his mother, it is not only because all the black peoples originated there but also because America, which should be his real mother, had always behaved toward him in stepmotherly fashion.

From Black Poets of the United States. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Joyce A. Joyce: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes captures the African American's historical journey to America in what is perhaps his signature poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Dedicated to W E. B. Du Bois and using water or the river as a metaphor for the source of life, the poem traces the movement of black life from the Euphrates and Nile rivers in Africa to the Mississippi. Hughes subtly couches his admonishment of slavery and racism in the refrain "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." The first time the line appears in the poem it follows the poet's assertion that he has known rivers "ancient as the world and older than the flow of / human blood in human veins." The poet here identifies himself and his blackness with the first human beings. The second and only other time the line appears in the poem occurs after the poet has made reference to Mississippi, New Orleans, and Abe Lincoln. He places the lines "My soul has grown deep like the rivers" at the end of the poem, this time suggesting that he is no longer the same man who "bathed in the Euphrates" and "built [his] hut near the Congo." He is now a black man who has experienced the pain of slavery and racism, and his soul now bears the imprint of these experiences.

From "Bantu, Nkodi, Ndungu, and Nganga: Language, Politics, Music, and Religion in African American Poetry." In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry. Ed. Joanne V. Gabbins. Copyright © 1999 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia.