George Hutchinson: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes had come to Whitman by way of such Midwestern rebels as Carl Sandburg prior to the twenties. His was the democratic "transnational," socialist, "comradely" Whitman pushed by Horace Traubel and the Masses circle (as opposed to the Whitman of "cosmic consciousness" Toomer responded to). Nonetheless, he early sensed the affinity between the inclusive "I" of Whitman and the "I" of the spirituals, whose fusion shaped one of his first published poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" . . . .

Readers rarely notice that if the soul of the Negro in this poem goes back to the Euphrates, it goes back to a pre-"racial" dawn and a geography far from Africa that is identified with neither blackness nor whiteness--a geography at the time of Hughes's writing considered the cradle of all the world's civilizations and possibly the location of the Garden of Eden. Thus, even in this poem about the depth of the Negro's soul Hughes avoids racial essentialism while nonetheless stressing the existential, racialized conditions of black and modern identity.

From The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Board of Fellows of Harvard College.

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Criticism Overview
Title George Hutchinson: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George Hutchinson Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White
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