The Negro Speaks of Rivers Essay

Langston Hughes’ poems entitled, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “I, Too, Sing America”, “Democracy” and “Mother to Soon” all have an undercurrent of social activism in the sense that they express Hughes’ thoughts and feelings as a member of the then heavily marginalized black American populace. Even educated in prominent universities, he lived in a time when racism and the fight for true democracy was only beginning after the abolition of the de jure segregation in the mid-1960s, so much so that his intellect and capabilities were unrecognized. “Mother to Son”, for one, is a dramatic poem about a mother’s life being ‘no crystal stair’, meaning that it is an upward climb in the social ladder bereft of the comfort and ease that a similar climb would have for the non-black race: ‘It’s had tacks in it,/ And splinters,/And boards torn up’ (The Academy of American Poets, 2008). It gives us a preview into the life of the ‘Negroes’ and other discriminated races alike back in the times when they had yet to attain full rights as American citizens. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, on the one hand, tells of the journeys that blacks have had, the long history of slavery that they have before their freedom was given them.

And even then, they still had to fight for equality, as their former masters had taught them through their revolts to attain democracy, which includes the themes of “fraternité, liberté and egalité” (fraternity, liberty and equality). ‘Ancient, dusky rivers’ must be the euphemism for their history, not merely a stream of long-gone memories but a strong current of struggles in the face of adversity, the rocks in the riverbed. This thread of thought is reinforced and even more obvious in his other poems, “I, Too, Sing America” and “Democracy”. In the first poem, he claims that he has as much right to be among the non-blacks, and not be sent to “eat in the kitchen” (discriminated or marginalized) because he is the “darker brother”; he states that there will come a time when “they’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be shamed”, or a time when his capabilities will finally be recognized. However, “Democracy” seems to have been written at a time when he felt a bit pessismistic about the outcome of their centuries-long battle for true freedom from discrimination.

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The Academy of American Poets (2008). Poetry, Poems, Bios and More [Internet]. Available from: ;; [Accessed 29 July 2008]