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The Negro Speaks of Rivers
By Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Year of Composition, Publication
Dedication
Interpretation
Point of View
Assuming a Persona
Text of the Poem
Themes
Figures of Speech
The Rivers
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography
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Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Type of Work

......."The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is a lyric poem in free verse. A lyric poem presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet rather than telling a story or presenting a witty observation. Free verse is a type of poetry that ignores standard rules of meter in favor of the rhythms of ordinary conversation. In effect, free verse liberates poetry from conformity to rigid metrical rules that dictate stress patterns and the number of syllables per line. One line may contain only four syllables (as in line 1 of "The Negro Speaks") and another more than twenty (as in line 2).

Year of Composition and Publication

.......Langston Hughes wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1920 and published it in January 1921 in Crisis magazine, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Dedication

.......Hughes dedicated the poem to W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), editor of Crisis (see above) and a promoter of black pride and black nationalism. 

Interpretation

.......Rivers deepen their beds by cutting channels through earth and rock. Black men and women deepen their knowledge, wisdom and character by persevering through trials and tribulations. Their experiences build a collective consciousness that flows, like a river, from one generation to the next. In Hughes's poem, a black man of the early twentieth centuryacting as speaker for the Negroid racetells the reader that he has inherited this collective consciousness from his forebears in Asia, Africa, and North America. In his mind's eye, he sees not only the suffering endured by blacks over the centuries but also their triumph over oppression.

Point of View

.......Hughes uses third-person point of view in the title and first-person point of view in the poem. In the title, Hughes announces the speaker and topic of the poem. Then he assumes the persona of the speaker (representing the Negroid race) in presenting the words of the poem. 

Assuming a Persona

.......In a novel, short story, or poem, any writer can become part of the work by assuming a persona that may or may not resemble his or her own in real life. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Hughes assumes the persona of the Negroid race, as if the speaker is a chorus of all blacks since the beginning of human life on earth.



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The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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.

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Themes

Wisdom and Experience

.......The Negroid race is a deep fund of wisdom and experience accumulated since the dawn of human existence.

Pride

.......Black men and women have a proud cultural history and record of accomplishment against adversity. 

Perseverance

.......In spite of suffering inflicted on them, black men and women have endured through the ages, never giving up.

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Figures of Speech

.......Examples of figures of speech in the poem are as follows:

Alliteration
Repetition of a consonant sound

Line 5: I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young
Line 6: lulled me to sleep, leaving me easy prey
Assonance
In stressed syllables, repetition of a vowel sound followed by a different consonant sound
Line 13: I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young
Anaphora
Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other
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. . . . 
Metaphor
Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
Line 4: My soul has grown deep like the rivers (comparison of spiritual depth to physical depth)
Simile
Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
Line 4: My soul has grown deep like the rivers (Comparison of the change in the depth of his soul to the change in the depth of rivers)
The Rivers

Euphrates

.......The Euphrates is one of two great rivers that form in Turkey and flow down through Iraq to Al Qurnah in Southern Iraq. The other river is the Tigris. At Al Qurnah, the rivers join to form the Shatt al-Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf. Recorded history began in a country between the two rivers, Mesopotamia.

Congo

.......The Congo River forms in central Africa in the present-day country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). From its headwaters, the river flows north in the DRC, then west, then southwest to the Atlantic Ocean. Many Africans were abducted from the Congo region and sold into slavery. King Leopold II of Belgium commissioned the famous Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish trading posts along the river. Supposedly, these trading posts were set up to civilize and develop the Congo region while ending the slave trade. However, the Belgians exploited the native population while capitalizing on the Congo as a rich source of ivory. 

Nile

.......The Nile forms south of the equator and flows northward through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Frequent flooding of the river made the soil on both sides of the river ideal for farming and helped Egypt become a dominant North African power in ancient times. Persons of the Negroid race were among those who constructed the pyramids not far from the Nile at Giza, Saqqarah, Dahshur and other sites.

Mississippi

.......The Mississippi River flows more than 2,000 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Black slaves labored along its shores, and slave auctions took place at towns and settlements within site of the Mississippi. After traveling down the Mississippi in 1831, Abraham Lincoln witnessed a slave auction in New Orleans and vowed to do all in his power to end slavery. In 1863, while he was the U.S. president, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write an essay that informs the reader of major accomplishments of black men and women from ancient times to 1800. 
2. Write an essay that describes the kind of slave auction that Abraham Lincoln witnessed.
3. Write a short lyric poem that uses anaphora to help convey the theme.
4. In the second stanza, the speaker says, "I've seen its (the Mississippi River's) muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset." Explain the meaning of these words. Keep in mind that the water remains muddy even though the surface appears golden golden. 


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