The Negro Speaks of the Rivers Questions and Answers
1) A Critical Appraisal of Hughes’s The Negro Speaks of the Rivers .
One of the hallmarks of the poem’s extraordinariness is its use of the simple language which is poetic and rhetorical. It is poetic in that it has the main characteristics of poetic discourse : the poem is condensed, coherent, and has the resonances of heart-felt emotion of love for his black brethren. It is rhetorical because it contains rhetorical devices: namely repetition of the line “I’ve known rivers” for as many as 3 times in lines 1, 2 and 17 to ram home the point of Hughes’ intimacy and sympathetic relationship with the rivers, through the use of refrain, metaphor, imagery and symbol.
Refrain: The repetition of a line for more than one time to hammer home the central idea of the poem. The line ‘I’ve known rivers¹ has been used for three times. in The Negro.
Metaphor: This is a figure of speech in which one thing, one idea or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea or action. The personal pronoun ‘I’ in The Negro Speaks… stands for the African and American in general. ‘I’ve known the rivers’…, the ‘rivers’ in the poem stand for the Afro
American spirit. The flowing water of the river is symbolical of Afro-American stoicism and of the endurance of the Afro-American deep soul.
Symbol: In the simplest sense, a symbol is anything that stands for or represents something else beyond it. The magical transformation of the Mississippi from mud to gold in the sunset – “I’ve seen its muddy bosom/turn all golden in the sunset” stands for the transformation of slaves into free men. The ‘sunset’ is emblematic of the ending of the system of slavery. The golden bosom in the poem may also symbolize a new age of freedom.
Images Images are not necessarily mental pictures but they may appeal to senses other than sight. The river Congo: “I built my hut near the Congo/and it lulled me to sleep” is imaged as a mother who sings lullaby to induce the babe to sleep. The expression “lulled me” suggests the lapping and murmuring sounds of the waters that ceaselessly flow. The poem ‘The Negro Speaks of the Rivers’ with its overt references to the setting sun, human blood, deep and dusky rivers suggest the images of death.
2) Theme of The Negro Speaks of Rivers : Langston Hughes.
The Negro records the bitter experiences of the black slaves deported through the rivers and ocean. The poet reminiscences the rivers – the Congo, the Euphrates, the Nile and the Mississippi which have enriched, the soul of the narrator and which represent the life, death, endurance, perseverance, the wisdom and the victory. A fire burns in the bosom, of the poet; it nurtures and nurses a deep passion to write poetry in order . to use it as arsenal for justice, emancipation from the shackles and fetters of slavery. Hughes seems to indulge in retrospection that of the history of the world, giving them the credit for spanning time and for founding the greatest civilizations that humanity has ever known.
3) ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ as a personal Lyric :
It is a personal lyric. Hughes speaks in the first person ‘I’ what led him to write this poem is stated below : For more than a half-century, the most common point of departure for interpreting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has been Hughes’s autobiographical account in The Big Sea (1940), where he acknowledges, “One of my poems that has perhaps been most often reprinted in anthologies …. was written just outside St. Louis, as the train rolled toward Texas” (54). En route to see his father in Mexico, Hughes recounts “how the sight of the Mississippi River inspired him to think about other rivers in our pastthe 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” (55). For decades, scholars accepted this straightforward
account and focused on the poem as a transcendent and romantic meditation on racial heritage. Although The Big Sea presents a compelling genealogy of the poem, the published version suggests an image of Africa that differs significantly from what Hughes describes writing. In addition to the above it is to be further noted
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” discusses Lincoln’s story and the life of slavery in the context of a son-father relationship “for the poem is an internal dialogue with his father whose strange dislike of his people baffled and disturbed Hughes, and, of course, implicated his son as an object of that dislike” (Hughes 1986; 37-40 qtd. in Rampersand). The relationship between Hughes and his father has both personal and political dimensions. Personally, it is a crisis of independence in that Hughes’s vision concerning Blacks and Whites is different from that of his father. While on the political level, it discloses the rejection of the Blacks man by Whites.
4) Undercurrent of Twin Emotions : Fear & Anxiety
It is the mystic union of the blacks throughout the world, Africa ‘a romantic motherland’ connecting the classical and the modern worlds, the African-American heritage and strength, the beauty of the setting sun and sparkling of the muddy river in the sun, the cloudy summer hour, the rivers and the riverscapes, seemingly calm, and peaceful African landscape as described in the line : “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep”, the ancient, deep, dusky, dark rivers which were once the powerful sites of oppression stirred the feelings of affection, conviviality and also the feelings of fear and anxiety in the poet. It is the fear of being lynched and the possibility of being dumped in a river allows Langston Hughes to courageously reclaim an intimacy with rivers. In The Negro speaks of Rivers, Hughes has his heartfelt affection for the Euphrates and the Congo but these rivers evoke his anxiety which gnaws at his heart. These two emotions fear and anxiety need to be sifted and considered carefully in his work. –
5) Hughes’s Use of Verbs:
The poem’s use of verbs reflect a dualism. Its tenses imply that intimacy with the riverscapes is exclusively reserved for the previous generations of African-Americans who lived before slavery, an intimacy since denied in the United States by slavery and racism. In contrast to the present tense of “Speaks” in the title, the poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ moves through the repetitive sequence of past events from the “have” suggested in the contraction “I’ve”( used four-times-in the poem) to bathed, built, looked and heard.
6) The Negro Speaks of Rivers: Its Musicality
The poem has sonority and cadences of music. When one reads the poem from the beginning to the end the poem regales one’s ears. It is for its musicality which
inheres in the poem that was set to music by the African-American pianist, composer Margaret Bonds and sung by Marian Andersok when she appeared with the Chicago symphony. But why was the poem set to music? It was for the reason that music has a unique ability to stir our souls and to stimulate our deep and strong emotions. The music illuminates a dozen parts of the brain, including the language, the hearing and the centre of the muscle control. The music improves in us the production of endorphinis, energy and our positive specific attitudes. The music reinforces the learning process, it has proved as a means of emotional, almost magic of learning, social and emotional skills.
7) Hughes’s The Negro Speaks of the Rivers: It Universal Appeal :
The Negro Speaks of the Rivers has an African-American internationalist appeal. The poem links the Nile, Euphrates and Congo to construct a broad commentary about Africa which acts as a connecting link between the classical and modern worlds. Hughes utilizes the Nile valley as the location of an active anti-colonial for poetic purposes. The Congo and the Nile have connotations of slavery and exploitation by colonial powers. The fourth and the final reference to the Mississippi “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” alludes to a popular story that Hughes recalls “reading (about) how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft to New Orleans, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life”.
The parficular rivers in the poem- The Euphratis, the congo, the Nile and the Mississippi have a story sense of history attached to them, which the poet evokes with visecral imagery: “Older than the flow of human blood in human veins” The image of the blood also evokes the question of family and race, which was foremost in the mind of the young poet on the journey meet his estranged father. In America the amount of black blood determined whether a person was clasified as black or writer the light complexion Hughes often dealt this Question, of color.
The long rivers mentioned in the poem are major landmarks of the countries in which they are located, with the ability to sustain and nourish life, each function, as a major line to life chains, providing a valuable resource for those who ‘build a hut’ and “bathe” along it shores. The river’s ability to assist with shelter and physical comforts while contunuing to ebb and flow parallel the struggles of Afro-American race.
The poem also contains the refrain “my soul …. rivers” a reference to W. B. B Dubois to whom the poem is dedicated. Dubois lad explored the concept of the soul in the souls of Black folk (1903) Hughes draws on the idea that the soul can transcend time and space to allo the speaker to relate to the heritage evoked by the rivers.