The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
Analysis: Sound Check
We have a lot to say about this rhythmic and intricate poem that feels to us like a boat rocking its way down a gentle river at night, but we think playwright, activist, and actor, Ossie Davis, says it best:
Langston Hughes belongs to whoever is listening. A possession in common, like the sights and sounds of a streetcorner hangout, or the barbershop debate over pretty girls' legs, and baseball players: Open your ears and your heart if you've got one; Langston will walk right in and do the rest. His thoughts come naked, conceived in the open, only at home in the public domain. Free, without charge, like water, like air – like salted peanuts at a Harlem rent party. Come in, have one on me – that's Langston's style; a great host; a perfect bartender; dishing it up, iambic pentameter, on the rocks and on the house, fresh wrote this morning. Dead now, but still alive. Ol' Langston in the corners of my mind. (Source)
There’s a gentle ease to "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." We can’t help but be lulled by the rhythms of this poem. It’s as if the steady chugging of Hughes’ train (the one he was on when he composed this masterpiece), seeped into the poem’s heart. The repetition of "I’ve known rivers" and "My soul has grown deep as rivers," makes us feel like someone is singing to us (the Mississippi?) or rocking us to sleep. It comes as no surprise to know that, in the tradition of Blues music, the first line is repeated twice. We feel completely and utterly moved. By the end of the poem, it’s as though we’ve woken up from a deep sleep in which we dreamt of traveling to the world’s greatest rivers.