LANGSTON HUGHES (1921) The poet's first mature and most recognizable published poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" became an anthem for Langston hughes's life and poetry and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Hughes is most highly regarded for his poems that utilize blues rhythm, but in this earlier poem he employs a rhythmic structure more akin to the cadences of a gospel sermon. Hughes was interested in capturing the oral traditions of African Americans, and here he fittingly uses a rhythm that represents an important part of black culture and life.
Written while crossing the Mississippi River by train, the poem was published in the African-American journal Crisis in June 1921. Although not infused with blues rhythm and written outside of the harlem renaissance, Hughes later included it in his collection The Weary Blues (1926), which is now noted as an important part of that literary movement. The poem eventually became so closely identified with Hughes that it was chosen to be read at his funeral service.
Hughes establishes the rhythm of a gospel preacher through his use of repetition of particular words and phrases within a free verse structure. Anaphora (repetition of words or phrases at the start of lines) in the middle stanzas also contributes to the sermonlike quality; "I bathed," "I built," "I looked," and "I heard" begin these lines. The longer lines also recall Walt Whitman's extended lines in Song of Myself (1855), establishing the African-American tradition as not only part of the African but also the American traditions.
Thematically the poem speaks of connection and tradition. The speaker links himself to the rivers of the ancient and New Worlds. In taking the reader on a tour of these rivers that have been part of his and his ancestors' lives for centuries, he connects his experience— and by extension, that of all African Americans—to the beginnings of the world: first the Euphrates, which flowed through the Garden of Eden, then to Central Africa, at whose heart is the Congo River. Next he makes the connection to one of the great early civilizations: ancient Egypt. Finally, he brings this connection and tradition to America as his thoughts travel down the Mississippi. This American tradition, however, is not one yoked by slavery and death, though it hints at their inextricable tie to African-American experience. The Mississippi is connected to Abraham Lincoln, a reminder of the past injustices of slavery while carrying the promise of freedom. The images of the setting sun, dusk, and the deepness of the rivers and the speaker's soul evoke thoughts of death, but also death-lessness and transcendence; as Arnold Rampersad says, Hughes becomes "the poet who sings of life because he has known death" (1,40).
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