Langston Hughes is a Harlem Renaissance poet, a movement that targets racial oppression of the blacks and attempts to redefine Negro identity, uprooting it from the elite perspectives of the whites through art, music and literature. This revolution began with the end of World war 1 and ran through the mid-1930’s. Through this poem, Hughes throws light on the concept of ‘two-ness’ by Du Bois in a creative fashion by metaphorically symbolising and representing the identity of the black community or ‘Negritude’ with rivers that flow across geographical spaces through the African and American continent but gives another perspective to this concept.
He, through the mentioning of geographically stretched rivers, however, does not imply how the dual identity of the blacks is a conflicting space but his emphasis ranges more, towards the idea that the Americans share a common lineage with the blacks that they highly discriminate.
In the poem ‘Negro speaks of rivers’ Hughes highlights various themes like timelessness and preexistence, racial oppression and injustice, the idea of infinite rootedness through the metaphor of rivers, union of the society and collectivism and negritude. The poem indicates undercurrents of ancient historical rootedness emphasising the idea of timelessness in order to glorify the black identity. It also talks about slavery in terms of racial, but moral outrage wholly.
The title of the poem, as we notice does not include a personal pronoun like the poem does, but gives a collective approach to the community through the word ‘Negro’. Hughes does not generalise but rather, emphasises on the union of the community and its collectivistic nature through this word. However, the speaker in the poem speaks through personal pronouns, a way of indicating that ‘I’ am a part of the ‘negro’ identity mentioned in the title of the poem as if representing the entire community. The speaker in the poem claims to have known ‘rivers, ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins’, indicating through this line the idea of preexistence and timelessness and the timeless wisdom the community possesses as well. The idea of timeless wisdom is emphasised on to glorify the black community, and to provide a perspective of the blacks that differs from the one that the elite whites offered, by claiming to possess knowledge of ‘ancient’ rivers.
Through these lines, the black community is being represented through historical ties and roots, etched into their community. We also see the speaker claiming to have a soul that has ‘grown deep like the rivers’, this line clearly laying emphasis on the rootedness and belongingness to these rivers. Through these illustrations in the poem, Langston Hughes associates Negritude or Negro identity with ancient history and hence glorifies the black community, claiming to have a greater and timeless preexistence, even before or beyond the existence of the whites.
Langston Hughes mentions rivers that flow across geographical spaces, through the America and Africa, symbolising common roots and cores, tracing the common lineage of the two highly distinguished communities. Rivers like the Euphrates, Congo, the Nile, Mississippi spread widely across the two geographical spaces associated with these communities is an indication of the idea of a union of their distinguished identities, that Hughes attempts to create. The speaker claims to have ‘bathed’ in the Euphrates, this could be a metaphor for the ritual of baptism that symbolises redemption and purification further indicating that the black community is wrongly censured to be impure based on race. He also claims to have built a hut near the ‘Congo’ and looked upon the ‘Nile’, through which Hughes traces back their lineage to their home country, their roots and will further stretch the same roots across the geographical spaces by bringing into the poem the rivers the Mississipi and New Orleans that are rooted in the colonisers continent. This stretch of cultural rootedness that Hughes creates by the mention of these rivers across boundaries is a glorification of African American culture and community by indicating its preexistence, as claimed by the speaker in the poem, all through these rivers and as they flow. The mention of an adjective to these rivers as ‘dusky’ provides a basis for the rootedness of cultural identity in all of them. The word dusky is a metaphoric representation of the racist terminology given to the blacks by the whites. By indicating that the speakers ‘soul has grown as deep as these ‘dusky’ rivers,’ Hughes reestablishes Negritude in the colonial geographical spaces in an attempt to glorify the ancient cultural rootedness of timeless preexistence of the black community.