Study Guide

The N**** Speaks of Rivers Themes

By Langston Hughes

  • Perseverance

    In "The N**** Speaks of Rivers," as our speaker charts the heritage of black Americans, beginning with the cradle of civilization in the Middle East and ending with references to slavery as seen from the Mississippi River, he traces over four thousand years of history. He tells us that as a result of all that he has seen, heard, done, and witnessed, his soul has grown "deep as rivers." Rivers have stood the test of time and carry an incredible wisdom as a result. Hughes draws a connection between the rivers and the black community, which has endured much and carries an equally profound and powerful wisdom.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Why does our speaker choose to focus on the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi rivers?
    2. Where do we get a sense of perseverance in this poem?

    Chew on This

    Our speaker’s soul is deep as rivers because he has persevered.

  • Race

    The title of "The N**** Speaks of Rivers" lets us know early on that the story that follows is told from the perspective of a member of the black community. Our speaker begins telling the tale of the birthplace of all civilization by taking us to the Euphrates River, but he ends at a time and place tied to the history of slavery and racism in America: when Abe Lincoln rode a boat down the Mississippi River, witnessing for the first time the horrors of slavery. Our speaker watches the "muddy" Mississippi turn "golden" in the light of the setting sun, suggesting the transformation from slavery to freedom that many Americans experienced after the Civil War. He celebrates the black community in this way.

    Questions About Race

    1. At what moments do we see the idea of race surface in this poem?
    2. What role does the title play in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The image of the Mississippi River turning to gold is a symbol for the freeing of slaves.

  • Memory and the Past

    In "The N**** Speaks of Rivers," our speaker seems to be one person at first, but soon we get the feeling that he is speaker for an entire community. His voice just might be a collective voice of a people. In telling the story of this community from the dawn of civilization until the end of slavery in America ( really until the Harlem Renaissance, considering poet Langston Hughes was from that era), the speaker records a history for his community, puts it down in writing. He uses his memory of the past to celebrate the present moment and to instill pride in his community.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What role does memory play in this poem?
    2. What moments in the past does our speaker discuss?
    3. Do we get a sense of the future in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The speaker in "The N**** Speaks of Rivers" redefines history.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    On our journey through time in "The N**** Speaks of Rivers," our speaker begins with the cradle of civilization on the banks of the Euphrates River. Next he stops by the Congo River basin where we are lulled by the lapping waters (and are reminded of the hypothesis that humans originated in Africa), and heads toward Egypt where we join other peasants (perhaps forced into working) in building the pyramids. Lastly, he ends the tour at the Mississippi River, the heart of slavery in America. The journey takes us from moments of freedom (the Euphrates and the Congo) toward confinement (the Nile and the Mississippi). Ultimately, we watch the end of slavery and see freedom restored.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. As he recalls his past, when is our speaker free and when is he confined?
    2. Do you get the sense that our speaker is currently free?

    Chew on This

    At the end of the poem, our speaker is free.