How Hughes was inspired to write his famous ‘Negro Speaks of Rivers’ poem is an interesting story. He was just seventeen and it was year 1920. Hughes was travelling to see his father. The train was crossing the Mississippi river and Hughes was watching its muddy waters. Something came to his mind and he pulled out an envelope from his pocket. It took him just a few minutes to jot down the poem which was published next year in a journal mostly read by the African American people. The themes addressed in this poem have come to be associated with Harlem Renaissance. In the opening lines, the speaker claims he knows of rivers older than the humanity and that his soul has grown deep like these rivers. These rivers have been a part of the world’s soul since ancient times and even before the humanity was born.
A few years later than the poem had been published, Hughes dedicated it proudly to W.E. B. Dubois. The poem is special for several reasons but particularly for its themes of timelessness and immortality. The Negro is the speaker in the poem. He talks of these rivers as ancient partners that have accompanied humanity in life and death. These rivers have been there for always, even before humans were born. The Negro talks of these rivers and how they have watched eras and civilizations change. From the dawn of the civilization to the world we live in today, these rivers have watched us in silence.
In the 5th and 6th lines of the poem, Hughes writes,
“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep”.
Euphrates is one of the historically important rivers. It is considered that the dawn of human civilization took place on its banks. By ‘dawns were young’ the poet implies the dawn of the human civilization. It was the time when human civilization was just a fledgling. The negro starts from Euphrates and comes down to Mississippi. All the way, he recounts the most important events in the human history having happened on the banks of these rivers. Congo is a another historically important river in Africa that the Negro mentions in his song. He says, the river sang lullabies to put his ancestors to sleep who lived on its banks. Rivers have not just fed humanity. The songs their waves sing have been a source of joy for humanity since ever. Every river in itself is a story, and like the negro in the poem we must read them from our hearts. Times have changed but our connection is still the same. These rivers remained with us as testimonies of our past. In a way, the Negro also expresses his gratitude to the rivers for having cared for his ancestors and the humanity.
‘I looked upon the Nile and raised the Pyramid over it’. The Negro sings the glory of the Nile and his ancestors that lived on its banks. The beautiful waves of Nile watched them building the magnificent pyramids. When Lincoln was at New Orleans the Mississippi river had sang with joy and its muddy waters turned golden as the river watched a golden era in history unfold. The Negro recounts the joy of his people being reflected in the waters of Mississippi. The story of these rivers is just as glorious as the humanity they have nurtured on their banks. The Negro tells the account of a happy chapter in American History that unfolded on the banks of Mississippi.
At last again the Negro says, “I have seen rivers, ancient dusky rivers”. These rivers are ancient in the sense that they are the oldest things on earth. These rivers full of water and mud will last till the dusk of the human civilization, just as they had seen its dawn. They are just as immortal as the humanity is mortal. While the poem holds a deep philosophical meaning, basically it takes us back and forth in time to view human story as these rivers must have seen it. From Euphrates to Mississippi, they have kept participating in our changing history while nurturing us and our culture and civilization. When the Negro’s eyes fall on these rivers, he is reminded of his ancestors who came before him and lived on the banks of these rivers. So ancient is the rivers’ soul that they can tell you the story of everything that has happened to the human civilization. Most of the cultures have considered these rivers sacred and the Negro also prays for his ancestors who lived before him on the banks of these sacred rivers. These rivers mean a lot to the Negro since they connect him with his ancestors who lived centuries ago. He not just traces his lineage but humbly recalls those ancient times when most of the humanity dwelt on the banks of these rivers and when the rivers fed them. As he sees the river, his soul grows just as deep as them and the deep reverence he has for his ancestors comes out as a song. Nature has always been a source of inspiration for poets and writers. However, for Hughes, it has become a living partner that takes care of humanity with the love and kindness of a mother.