Transcendence in Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

A short analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006
18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The New Negro Movement’s impact on Langston Hughes

3 Analysis of “The Negro speaks of Rivers”
3.1 The Lyrical “I”
3.2 The motif of the Pyramid
3.3 The Motif of the River

4 Transcendence in “The Negro speaks of Rivers”

5 Conclusion

Primary sources
Secondary sources
Books and Magazines
Online Journals

1 Introduction

Hughes had always been a part of small black communities, to whom he was strongly attached (Black Renaissance Reader 1251). He felt a strong racial pride, although his father, according to Hughes, hated himself for being black and although Hughes experienced constantly the vilest forms of discrimination (St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture).

One incident in Hughes’ childhood shaped his point of view profoundly: During the McCarthy hearings, Hughes reported that his schoolmates stoned him on his way home from school. But one of his schoolmates, a very small, white youth, protected him. He had never forgotten this youngster standing up for him against these other first graders who were throwing stones at him. He goes on to indicate that he had always felt from that time on that there are white people in America who can be an African American’s friend. Hughes also emphasized the fact that he never said anything to create a division among whites or African Americans. For that reason I am of the opinion that Hughes’ poetry never became a bitter undercurrent, but was shaped by both his positive and negative experiences.

According to Karen Jackson Ford, the one thing many readers of “twentieth-century American poetry can say about Langston Hughes is that he has known rivers” (Do right to write right: Langston Hughes's aesthetics of simplicity). "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" became famous for the elevated, declamatory mood, mythic scale, and compelling cadenced repetitions. But however beautiful the poem’s cadences, it is remembered primarily because it is Hughes's most frequently anthologized work: "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of Hughes' most atypical poems, and nonetheless it defined his reputation (Do right to write right: Langston Hughes's aesthetics of simplicity).

In view of the history and experiences that Africans have faced in America, the affirmation by Patricia Liggins Hill that “African American Writing is both a product of, and a response to, its own historical and cultural context” (768) seems to be vital for interpreting Langston Hughes famous poem “The Negro speaks of Rivers”.

2 The New Negro Movement’s impact on Langston Hughes

In the pre-war era around 1912 the avantgarde movement reached America as political and artistical radicalism (Ruland 270). Artists found themselves animated by a new political, creative and psychosexual awareness, and for that reason the artists came to the conclusion that 19th century principles of aesthetics were becoming ever more obsolete (Ruland 270-271). However, only six yeas later, the terror of mechanical warfare and mass killing, the collapse of European realms and the rise of communism worked together “to alter the national temper irrevocably” (Ruland 273). The First World War had catastrophic impact on artistic sensibility, for example the hero of Fitz Gerald’s novel “This Side of Paradise” “found all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken” (Ruland 273). Nevertheless, in this new atmosphere of nihilism and decadence, the strength of aesthetic revolution still survived despite the declining of political radicalism. Most Afro-Americans who served voluntarily in the army were harshly disillusioned as they came back to America: They experienced segregation and humiliation in the armed forces, and secondly, they became aware of the fact that they risked their lives and were fighting for an equal America that did not exist. Thus, in this sentiment, I can imagine that Afro-Americans were becoming increasingly anti-American, and therefore, the debates of black artists in the 1920’s were centred on different themes: Should a black artist perfect his technique on the standard of mainstream white, Eurocentric American culture? Would he thereby display that he was in fact equal of white writers? Or was this very aspiration humiliating in its recognition of implied inequality? (Ruland 400). During this time, also known as the time of the “New Negro”, the African American communities became not only more confident and conscious of themselves, but also developed a strong sense of racial pride. A clear distinction from the American culture took place in which African Americans defined themselves in their own terms and did not compare themselves to white Americans. According to Hill, they imaginarily returned to their African cultural heritage and expressed their new identity by assorting their cultural roots and folk tradition (768). In this way, a rebirth of the African American creative expression took place, which on occasion, is known as the Harlem Renaissance. However, Langston Hughes (1902-1967) emphasizes the fact that he had “always felt […] that there are white people in America who can be your friend, and will be your friend, and who do not believe in the kind of things that almost every Negro who has lived in our country has experienced” (Harper’s Magazine). Hughes goes on to report that his father said that Negroes are fools to live in America, but he did not share this viewpoint. In fact, Hughes “loved the country” he had grown up in, and his feeling was this is his fatherland. For that reason, he aspired to make his fatherland as beautiful and wonderful as possible (Harper’s Magazine). In general, writers of the New Negro Movement focused to a great extent on the revelation of “the truths, beauty and power of the communal experience of Americans of African descent before and beyond Harlem” (Hill 781). They tried to connect on the one hand, the past with the present, and on the other hand, rural with urban communal experiences of African Americans. Therefore at a first glance, the writing of African Americans can generally be seen as a product of and response to their historical and cultural context.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Transcendence in Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
A short analysis
Dresden Technical University  (Amerikanische Kultur- und Literaturwissenschaften)
Harlem Renaissance
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Transcendence, Langston, Hughes, Negro, Speaks, Rivers, Harlem, Renaissance
Quote paper
Rebecca Rasche (Author), 2006, Transcendence in Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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