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The Negro Speaks of Rivers




The Kennedy Center
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership
Listen to Hughes read the poem.

On a train crossing the Mississippi River the year after he graduated from high school, Langston Hughes admired how the interplay of light and water made the river look golden. Inspired by the effect, he wrote one of his best—and best-known—poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

On the same route some years earlier, Hughes had become angry when his father scoffed at some African-American laborers he described as "worthless." In defense of people whose situations had been decided for them, Hughes would grow up to write movingly about the hardships and cruelties of slavery.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" explores the journey of African Americans through history. Though Hughes wrote the poem in the first person (using the pronoun "I"), the poem narrates the rich history of all Africans, from pre-literate times through the building of the pyramids. Like many other artists and writers of his day, Hughes studded the work with Egyptian symbolism and other references to African heritage.

When the manuscript of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" landed in the office of The Crisis magazine, editor W. E. B. Du Bois turned to Jessie Fauset and said, "What colored person is there, do you suppose, in the United States who writes like that and is yet unknown to us?"

The poem, published in The Crisis in 1921, was dedicated to Du Bois, whose essays on race-building had inspired Hughes as a young boy. "My earliest memories of written words," he later recalled, "were those of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Bible."

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" inspired creative individuals throughout Harlem and well beyond. Artist Aaron Douglas deployed ink and brush to show a man lying next to the Nile. Composer Howard Swanson, a friend of Hughes', set the poem to music, consulting its author as he set down each new passage of notes. Twenty years later, the poem was still irrigating the fields of invention: In 1942, Margaret Bonds composed a song whose lyrics sprang from "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

Read "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," listen to Hughes reading the poem, and view Douglas' illustration.


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Langston Hughes was in his teens when he wrote the famous poem.
Aaron Douglas illustrated The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
The poem was dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois.

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