“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”appeared in June 1921 in the Crisis, when Langston Hughes was only nineteen years old. It was the first Langston Hughes poem published in a national magazine.
According to Hughes in The Big Sea (1940, 54–56), the poem was written in the summer of 1920, after his graduation from high school, while he was on a train going from Cleveland, Ohio, to Mexico. He was going to join his father, who lived there, and with whom the poet had a troubled relationship. “All day on the train,” Hughes recalled, “I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.”
As the train crossed the Mississippi at sunset over a bridge near St. Louis, Hughes began to brood on the historical associations of that river with blacks, slavery, and the myth that Abraham Lincoln had vowed to himself, on a journey in his youth, to free the slaves someday. “Then 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.”The poem was finished within “ten or fifteen minutes.”
The following year, it was accepted for publication by the literary editor of the Crisis, Jessie Redmon Fauset, who had earlier discovered Hughes's talent. Later, when he included the poem in his first published volume, The Weary Blues (1926), he dedicated it to W. E. B. Du Bois in response to Fauset's request that he honor the venerable editor.
Probably indebted in its basic structure—its long, irregular, unrhymed lines and its dignified but casual language—to the example of Walt Whitman, the poem sounded a note previously unheard in African American poetry. It invokes the subject of the violation of African people by slavery, but rage and the will to revenge are gently subsumed within lyric cadences that capture something of the noble spirit of the black spirituals without ever appealing to traditional ideas about religion.
With its allusions to dusky rivers, soul, blood, the setting sun, and sleep, the poem is fairly suffused with images of death. However, it aims ultimately to affirm the ability of blacks to transcend their historic suffering and affirm their fundamental dignity and beauty. The words “I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset”capture the ability of the poetic vision and the poetic will, accessible to all sympathetic people through the communality of the first-person narrator of the poem, to turn the mud of black life, beset by racism and injustice, into gold.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”laid the foundation for the special bond between Hughes and African Americans that led him at one time to be hailed as “”the poet laureate of the Negro race.”
Langston Hughes, Collected Poems, 1994.