Slavery and Racism

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.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

The son of former slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar was born and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. His father had escaped from Kentucky to serve in a Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. He began writing poetry in high school and eventually acquired a large multiracial audience. By late nineteenth century standards, Dunbar's work was steadfast both in its black pride and its rejection of racism. Yet during the Harlem Renaissance, his dialect poetry would win praise from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, while meeting severe criticism from James Weldon Johnson and others.