Consistently representative of the Black American race, Langston Hughes wrote about the life of the Blacks—their hopes and dreams, sufferings, and freedom. Specifically, his poems suggest how the Blacks lived during the author’s time. Although most of his works are mostly devoted to the life of the Blacks, the author used different personas in his poems. Particularly, in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Theme for English B,” we see that although both poems are reminiscent of the hope and dreams of the Black Americans, they still vary in the kinds of persona presented.
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the author presents an eternal, triumphant, and free persona. The persona claims that he has known rivers, which is a symbol for life. He imparts that he has known life from its beginnings when the world was “older than the flow of human blood” (Line 2). He adds that he has “bathed in the Euphrates,” and even “raised the pyramids” (Line 6).
Moreover, he has “heard the singing of Mississippi” (Line 7), and seen the transformation of the Blacks. All these lines suggest the eternality of the persona. In addition, the use of the rivers itself is a representation of eternity.
Water flowing down a river never stops, and although rivers may go dry at times, they regenerate when rain comes. As depicted in Line 7, the persona can likewise be viewed as triumphant. He states that the muddy river turned golden in the sunset during the time of the Civil Wars. Furthermore, by using the river, the persona is depicted to be free in that rivers are usually free flowing.
Additionally, by saying that the river is deep (Line 10), he author means that the persona is free yet deeply rooted in his origins. In the other poem titled, “Theme for English B,” we see a suppressed persona, struggling to be part of a society.
In the poem, the persona is a 22-year-old college student who struggles to form his identity in his school. He recognizes the separation between races, and being surrounded by White students and teachers, the boy feels isolated. He expresses this isolation when he tries to write a composition (as suggested by the word theme) that bears “the truth”. His teacher tells them that if what they write comes out of them, “it will be true” (Line 5). This also means that if students write based on their experiences, the composition they will produce will be realistic. Doing as instructed, the boy goes home and tries to write his composition.
He expresses in it that although he is Black and the teacher is White, they have similarities and form one society, one history, one people. He suggests that the White is part of the Black’s history and vice versa. He also tries to tell the teacher that although the teacher is the one in authority, the teacher may also learn from him, being his student. As such, we see that the persona struggles to establish a personality, and tries to fit into the society that makes him inferior. His reality, as he wrote it, is the fact that there is separation between races (specifically the White and the Black).
Although we see two different personas in these poems, one thing is certain about Hughes’s use of the personas. By pronouncing the characteristics they possess, the personas he used are similar in that both assert themselves in their society. While we see a dominant and assertive persona in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” there is a less authoritative yet another assertive persona in “Theme for English B”. Considering the use of the persona in Hughes’s poems, we may say that the author suggests different personalities of the Blacks.
One personality is presented in the first poem, wherein the persona is dominantly assertive and free, while the other personality is weaker, less assertive, and suppressed by the society. Thinking about these differences, we may say that Hughes presents different motives in writing his poems. In the first poem, Hughes tries to suggest how the Blacks should see themselves. Deducing its message, we can say that by presenting boldness, dominance, and antiquity, Hughes on the one hand empowers his own race, and tells his people to do the same—be like rivers flowing freely.
On the other hand, in the second poem, he presents the reality of the Blacks. The student struggling to assert his identity in class and in society is more mimetic of the reality of the Black Americans during the author’s time, than the other persona who claims his historic existence. Although there is no question about the old existence of the Blacks, the first poem somehow conceals the discrimination suffered by the Black race before. On considering the literary merits of the two poems, I personally favor the second poem because although the first poem empowers the Black American spirit, it seems too idealistic that it loses mimesis.
Also, it is too specific of the Blacks. The second poem has more literary merits as it presents reality, and exposes specific emotions of a Black student. Additionally, it has more literary value as it vividly exposes a fact regarding life. It presents a universal theme that suggests to us that although people may look different from one another, each forms part of the other’s history. That is, one affects the other, and by coexisting, each learns from the other. In other words, the second poem teaches us that life will not be complete without coexistence.
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