The speaker claims that he has known rivers as “ancient as the world,” older than the blood that flows in our veins. His soul has grown deep, just like the rivers. He writes about bathing in the Euphrates at the beginning of civilization, and later, he built a hut along the Congo and listened to the river as he fell asleep. He looked at the Nile and watched the pyramids rise nearby; he heard the muddy Mississippi sing when Abraham Lincoln traveled to New Orleans. He repeats that he has known “ancient, dusky rivers,” and his soul has grown deep like the rivers.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Langston Hughes’s first mature poem. He wrote it in 1920 at the age of seventeen, while traveling by train to visit his father in Mexico. The young Hughes was inspired to pen this verse when his train crossed over the Mississippi River. It was published in 1921 in the journal the Crisis, which had a predominantly African American readership. Although Hughes did not technically write "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in or about Harlem, he addresses themes that would later become closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes dedicated this poem to W.E.B. DuBois a few years after its initial publication. It was also read out loud at Hughes's own funeral service in 1967.
When Langston Hughes was writing "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," he was most influenced by the work of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. He particularly cited Whitman's “Song of Myself” as an inspiration for the longer lines in “Negro.” The poem is free verse but has the rhythm of a gospel preacher. Hughes utilizes anaphora, which is the repetition of words or phrases at the start of each line, like “I built,” “I looked,” and “I heard.”
In this poem, the speaker links himself to his ancestors, firmly placing them in important historical, religious, and cultural sites all over the world. The speaker begins by claiming a connection to the world's ancient rivers that predated human beings, and that has made his soul grow "deep like the rivers." This insightful and articulate description indicates the speaker's immense intellect, and allows him to make a definitive connection between people of his race and the rest of human civilization. In the early 20th Century, white Americans often viewed their darker-skinned counterparts as less than human, and here, Hughes offers concrete proof of historical equality.
The speaker mentions four great rivers, starting with the Euphrates, which historians and archaeologists often label as the birthplace of human civilization. Then, he mentions the strong and mighty Congo, along which many great African kingdoms have flourished. The speaker then cites the long, winding Nile and the great Egyptian pyramids. He witnessed the creation of these structures, which are amongst man's greatest feats of architecture. Finally, he writes about the muddy and golden Mississippi, which he links American slavery and Abraham Lincoln.
Although the speaker shares many of Langston Hughes's beliefs, he is a universal figure rather than an autobiographical depiction of Hughes himself. The speaker serves as a voice for all African Americans, as he traces their lineage to the cradles of civilization. Onwuchekwa Jemie extols the merits of the poem:
It is a sonorous evocation of transcendent essences so ancient as to appear timeless, predating human existence, longer than human memory. The rivers are part of God's body, and participate in his immortality. They are the earthly analogues of eternity: deep, continuous, mysterious. They are named in the order of their association with black history. The black man has drunk of their life-giving essences, and thereby borrowed their immortality.
Death is one of the main themes in the poem, although it is subtle. Critic Arnold Rampersad writes:
With its allusions to deep dusky rivers, the setting sun, sleep, and the soul, [the poem] is suffused with the image of death and, simultaneously, the idea of deathlessness. As in Whitman's philosophy, only the knowledge of death can bring the primal spark of poetry and life. Here Langston Hughes became ‘the outsetting bard,’ in Whitman's phrase, the poet who sings of life because at last he has known death.