Poet's Pick April 6
Langston Hughes: "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
Selected by Adrian Matejka
National Poetry Month 2016

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Adrian Matejka's Poetry Month Pick, April 6, 2016

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
by Langston Hughes (1902–1967)

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in
     human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
     and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


* Adrian Matejka Comments:
I first read Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the late 1980s in Indianapolis, around the same time I discovered Pan-Africanism through Public Enemy, Bob Marley, and Marcus Garvey. It makes sense, really, that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” would have knocked me out. Like Public Enemy, the poem works in direct opposition to the ways black identity was shown (when it was shown at all) in movies and on television in the Reagan Era. However, Hughes’s treatment of the cultural histories shared by people of African descent was meditative and inclusive. His poem offered me a more sedate space in which to consider my identity.

What doesn’t make sense (or maybe, is so impressive that I don’t want it to make sense) is that Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was 17-years old during a train ride to Mexico. Crossing the Mississippi River was the inspiration for Hughes, who wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, “I began to think about other rivers in our past—the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa—and the thought came to me: ‘I’ve known rivers,’ and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem, which I called ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’”

The poem, written in 1919, outlines a more substantial, global history for blacks in the United States during a time when such a history was profoundly necessary, both for self identification and for cultural clarity. It is also a poem of universal community, another necessity in early 20th century America, when race influenced every part of society’s machine. Hughes’s speaker operates in the same register as Whitman’s all-inclusive “I,” speaking in unison for black Americans in a style not too far away from W.E.B. DuBois, to whom “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was dedicated. DuBois was also the editor of The Crisis, where the poem was initially published in 1921.

All we have to do is read the poem aloud to hear the connections of history and nature and culture Hughes wanted to illustrate. All of that assonance and consonance breaking and receding like the very rivers he was celebrating. Epistrophe, too: “river” repeated over and over in the perpetual motion of the rivers. Or a spiritual. Or some of the blues Hughes would riff off of later in his writing career. His anaphoric “I” and “my” serve both sound and self. In this poem, Hughes shows us that the first step to self-determination is acknowledgment and acceptance of the self: almost every line begins with a first-person pronoun.

This communal version of black determination was an engine for Hughes throughout his career. In his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he wrote, “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.” Hughes continued to explore the beauty and complication in black American life in a range of literary modes (including short stories and plays) throughout his nearly 50-year writing career, though he later moved away from poems with a Whitmanesque “I” into fables and blues and jazz variations with speakers who inhabited more exclusive points-of-view for community commentary.

Hughes was critiqued, too, for his belief that dialect and more mundane black experiences have a place in poetry while some of his contemporaries wanted to codify the black American experience as pristine. As Hughes wrote in The Big Sea, “I didn't know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” makes the case that all black people—the ones who went to Harvard, the ones who ride trains or work on trains, the ones with guitars strapped to their backs or who read poetry in their bedrooms in Indianapolis by flashlight—share a great cultural heredity that parallels even the most ancient of rivers.

Adrian Matejka:
Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003) and Mixology (Penguin USA, 2009). His third collection, The Big Smoke (Penguin USA, 2013) was a winner of the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and 2014 Pulitzer Prize. His new book, Collectable Blacks, will be out in April 2017 from Penguin Random House. He is the Lilly Professor/Poet-in-Residence at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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