The Existence of a Race
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes is a poem, which traces Negro history through time and civilization.
The poem starts with the speaker proclaiming "I've known rivers." The "river" in this line picks up both time and life imagery. Throughout the poem we will see the river as the center of life. The following two lines further expresses the idea of time and life. The rivers are "ancient as the world" and "older than the flow of human blood." We see the substances "Time" in the first quotation and the essence of life in the latter. The whole stanza explains that life is like rivers, running through the existence of the world. Life exists in parallel to the existence of rivers.
Since there is life from the ancient world, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." "My soul" is actually the black soul, which is an icon of the Negroes. The involvement of Negroes in the world history deepens Negro history. With this reason, no one has the right to deny the existence of the "soul."
In the third stanza, the speaker uses the description of four different rivers to illustrate the flow of life and civilization. First, he mentioned the Euphrates River. The Euphrates River is the largest river in Western Asia. It forms part of ancient civilization in the Middle East, and was the site of the ancient states of Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria. By saying "I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young, the speaker implies that he too is involved in the ancient civilization. The words "dawns were young" is to show the beginning of civilization.
Next, the speaker introduced the largest river in central Africa. The Congo River being the native land of the Negroes is the place where the speaker could build his "hut" as home and let the river "lulled me to sleep." Besides nurturing the speaker, the Congo River has long been envisioned as the main source of transportation and communication for the region. After the Europeans got to know the River at the end of 15th century, civilization continues along the river, with the speaker sleeping along (civilization). The words "hut" is a pun for "heart", it binds the speaker stronger to both the nurturing river and civilization.
The river of Nile is the next in line of this stanza. We understand that river of Nile is important in Western Civilization. This is the place where the Egyptians "raised the pyramids," a symbol of civilization. Like the Congo River, Nile is also the route of transportation and communication. Civilization develops with human interaction. Not only did the speaker look upon Nile, he was also involved in raising the symbol of civilization.
Abe Lincoln is seen in the next description of the poem. He was mentioned together with the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River is the largest river of North America. The mention of Abraham Lincoln brings out an issue that is of great importance to the Negroes. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the rebellious states, where at that time, black slaves composed more than half the state's population. The speaker says, "I heard the singing of the Mississippi," this is the singing of victory of the Negroes in gaining freedom and some basic respect. Besides, "singing" too means harmony.
The Mississippi River is "muddy" because silt disposited by the Mississippi River's floodwater causes the river to be muddy. The river's "muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset" is the emphasis of success of the Negroes to specify their existence.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker repeats the line "I've known rivers" and concludes the above by saying "Ancient, dusky rivers."
However, the poem only ends when the speaker repeats the theme of the poem: My soul has grown deep like the rivers.