Analysis of Langston Hughes' Poem: 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers'

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How can the voice of one individual represent or engulf the many hidden voices of a repressed people? Langston Hughes, a prominent figure in American literature captures at best, both the pride and plight of the African-American people at the turn of the twentieth century. He had written hundreds of literary pieces by the time of his death in May 1967; a few of those pieces were “The Big Sea” (1940), “I Wonder as I Wander” (1956), “The Weary Blues” (1926), and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921). One of his most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” carries with it, embedded in its language and content, “personal anguish…alchemized by the poet, into a gracious meditation on his race…” (Arnold Rampersad, “The Origins of Poetry in Langston Hughes,” from The Southern Review 21, no.3 (July 1985). The significance of this poem to me is the surge of inspiration Langston Hughes grasps as he associates “The Rivers” with the bridge between past and present. The speaker “I,” seems to be addressing an audience, perhaps himself, or herself. This persona makes a bold statement; “I’ve known Rivers.” Why then, the concern with rivers? Traditionally, a river is a significant symbol of strength and ongoing beauty, a symbol of life, of transformation, continuation, but also depth and persistence. The lines “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood through human veins” allow the reader to connect the seemingly abstract ideas of the opening statement, and clearly define the speaker’s intent. “The Rivers” are like veins in a human body. They are different in size and color, but absolutely necessary and more importantly, equal across time, space, as well as culture. The various stories of “rivers” are all common stories about humanity, humanity in its many forms, beauty and pain, growth and regress. “My soul has grown

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