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Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers".

Summary and Analysis

(from American Literature II Lectures)

An unrhymed poem with a rhetorical structure and an anaphoric opening: "I've known rivers". The phrase is repeated differently in the beginning of almost each line.

The poem is concerned with the development of civilisation. It begins with the Euphrates, follows with the Congo and the Nile, and concludes with the Mississippi. The rives mark the movement from ancient times to more recent civilisations. One reason for the rivers as landmarks is that the civilisation was accumulated on their banks. Also the rivers are natural forces with history much longer than that of man. And the civilisations on the rivers were based on slavery. The rives frequently appear in the sermons and songs of the blacks.

The speaker observes that he has known the rivers because he was bathing in the Euphrates, he built his hut near the Congo, he built the pyramids at the Nile. He mentions the Mississippi in connection with Lincoln and says he has seen its muddy bosom (probably symbolizes slavery) turn into gold in the sunset (probably symbolizes freedom). Finally he soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The poem is concerned with the history of the blacks (mentions e.g. "Abe Lincoln" who abolished the slavery). The blacks are seen as expelled to a difficult journey. The poem is obsessed with colour and depth. The soul, which is of great importance, is deep like the "dusky rivers" in the concluding line. The poem is a celebration of blackness, it is concerned with the blacks and targeted at the blacks.


  • Author

    Hughes, Langston. (1902 - 1967).
  • Full Title

    "The Negro Speaks of Rivers".
  • First Published

    In: The Crisis. 1921.
  • Form


Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers". (1921). In: The Harper American Literature. Ed. Donald McQuade et al. 2nd Compact Edition. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

American Literature II Lectures.


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