Still recognized as one of the literary giants of America, Langston Hughes played an important role as a writer and thinker of the Harlem Renaissance. This was an artistic movement of African Americans that arose during the 1920s to celebrate the lives and culture of Africans in the United States (“Langston Hughes”). Because most of the African Americans had been brought to the New World as slaves of white masters, it was poets and writers like Hughes, an African American man, that helped to change the perception of African Americans in the minds of the whites once slavery had been abolished.
Hughes’ poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” published in 1926, and “Negro” published in 1958, therefore depict African Americans as ordinary human beings like everybody else, and yet richer in culture and civilization than many others, seeing that they have participated in the construction of the great “pyramids,” mentioned in both poems (Hughes, 2007; Hughes). Hughes was direct and open about the fact that his writings were meant to uplift the conditions confronting Africans in the United States (Hughes, 1923). They had been slaves, so therefore the whites did not respect them enough even after the abolishment of slavery.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published five years after the Tulsa Riot and during the Harlem Renaissance (“Race Riot, Lynchings, and other Forms of Racism in the 1920s”). “Negro,” on the other hand, was published at a time when racism was considered a bigger problem than before. In fact, during the 1950s racism was at the forefront of American thought (Lewis, 2002). Many battles were fought to set blacks equal to whites in the minds of all Americans. Hughes’ contribution of the 1950s, his poem “Negro,” was only different to the extent that it was an artist’s contribution.
Countless other Africans were fighting on the streets of America to set things right once and for all. Both poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro,” are expressions of African American identity. The first poem begins thus: “I’ve known rivers…” (Hughes). In the second as in the first, although the poet has made clear that the narrator is a negro – the poem, “Negro” begins with the words, “I am a Negro” (Hughes, 2007). Because the whites had been masters over African slaves, they were inclined to look down upon Africans. Since the whites were owners of property in America and certainly richer, the blacks longed to be like the whites.
But, Hughes would like the Africans to feel at home in their own skins. With images of rivers as grand as of the Euphrates, the Nile and the Mississippi – the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” reminds the African of his or her historical roots or the history of the great African peoples who have traveled across all of these rivers adding value to the historical streams of cultures. The poem has irregular, long lines without rhythm because it is making a basic point: the African soul is as deep as any human soul could be. The African individual indulges in deep thinking as he travels across ancient rivers.
What he must dwell on is his own identity on foreign soil. Remembering the history of his civilization, he must keep in mind that life carries on. What’s more, the poet reminds his fellow African that the black race has survived despite all odds (Hughes). Because “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published during the peak of Harlem Renaissance, it refers to depth of the African soul, given that art is often understood as the voice of the soul and the Harlem Renaissance was all about promoting African art and culture in the United States.
Using gentle images such as the Mississippi’s bosom “turning golden in the sunset,” the poet uses his emphasis on rivers to stand as a symbol for the depth of the African soul (Hughes). “Negro,” published during the 1950’s also mentions “depths” (Hughes, 2007). As in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the depths mentioned by Hughes in both poems most likely refer to the depth of African knowledge too. After all, both poems refer to the history of Africans.
“Negro,” with its sentence arrangements describing either what had happened to Africans or what they have done in the history of the African civilization – also makes mention of the experiences and/or skills that set Africans apart, for example, slavery and singing (Hughes, 2007). The poet represents all Africans in both his poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro. ” What is more, both poems mention the fact that the Africans were part of the labor force that built the ancient pyramids. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” it was the African who “looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it” (Hughes).
In “Negro,” the pyramid is said to have arisen under the African hand, implying that the African was greatly skilled even at the time of ancient pyramid construction (Hughes, 2007). The main difference between the two poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro” is, undoubtedly, the spirit of hope felt through the first poem versus the sense of despair mixed with hope in the second poem. Hughes must have composed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in a different frame of mind altogether. The poem clearly promotes the African American culture and art as originating in the deep history of humanity (Hughes).
Although “Negro” makes mention of world history too, it does not necessarily promote African American art, apart from its reference to singing. The African American may be considered as more of a laborer or low paid worker than an artist in “Negro” (Hughes, 2007). Perhaps the poem was not written to promote African American art at all. As mentioned previously, the 1950s saw the whites and blacks of America fighting over the question of equal rights of Africans in almost all major areas of state functioning, including education. There were severe problems related to racism during this period of American history.
Clearly, blacks were being looked down upon. It was in the mood of that hour that Hughes composed “Negro. ” The poem speaks of the ordinariness of the African individual while describing the good uses that Africans have been made of, for example, in the construction of the “Woolworth Building” (Hughes, 2007). “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is certainly not dismal or depressing like “Negro,” mainly because it does not make mention of slavery and victimization as the second. After all, Hughes is fighting against injustice toward African Americans in the 1950s.
In the 1920s, his cause was entirely different. If “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” had made frequent mention of darkness as does “Negro,” the Harlem Renaissance could not have been considered a harbinger of hope (Hughes, 2007). References Hughes, L. (2007, Dec 2). Negro. Retrieved Mar 15, 2009, from http://amandafa. blogspot. com/2007/12/negro-by-langston-hughes. html. ————–. (1926, Jun 23). The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. The Nation. Retrieved Mar 15, 2009, from http://www. hartford-hwp. com/archives/45a/360. html. ————–. The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Retrieved Mar 15, 2009, from http://www. wmrfh. org/dcrews/index_files/Hughes_The%20Negro%20Speaks%20of%20Rivers. doc. Langston Hughes. America’s Story from America’s Library. Retrieved Mar 15, 2009, from http://www. americaslibrary. gov/cgi-bin/page. cgi/aa/hughes. Lewis, C. H. (2002). The Rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Retrieved Mar 15, 2009, from http://www. colorado. edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/civil. htm. Race Riot, Lynchings, and other Forms of Racism in the 1920s. Retrieved Mar 15, 2009, from http://www. assumption. edu/ahc/raceriots/default. html.
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