The Negro Speaks of Rivers
What’s Up With the Title?
We hear a voice in this title. The voice seems to be that of an onlooker who is listening to a person speak of rivers. We imagine this onlooker to be part of a crowded room or hall, watching "the Negro" deliver a speech or sermon. The verb "speaks" is in the present tense, making us feel as though we’ve come across a current event, a revolutionary moment.
This title instantly time-machines us to the early 20th century when the "negro" was the term of self-identification that the black community in America adopted for itself. This self-identification and self-naming allowed the black community to claim identity and to celebrate their national presence at a time when slavery was a not-so-distant memory and when acts of racism and intolerance occurred frequently. While this term was rejected during Civil Rights era and throughout the '60s, Langston Hughes was a contemporary of the major activists W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey, and was responding to the social movements of his time. The presence of this term in the title immediately lets us know that the following poem will treat the black experience. We find it noteworthy, however, that this term only appears in the title, thus placing emphasis on the universal nature of the ideas that it treats.