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