A Critical Summary of “Walking Backwards into Tomorrow: Poet Langston Hughes, Collective Memory, and the Construction of Historical Consciousness”
Dike, Chidinma Joy
B.A. English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
The essay explores the importance of a people’s historical background, especially the black historical consciousness, the necessary factors which aided the understanding of this past experiences and how these past experiences are pertinent to the understanding of the present and future. The writers of the essay “Walking Backwards into Tomorrow: Poet Langston Hughes, Collective Memory, and the Construction of Historical Consciousness”, in Africa and World Literature, University of Nigeria Journal of Literary Studies, Prof. Ikenna Dieke and Rev Sr Adaoma Igwedibia, opines that the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” aims at evaluating what is meant by black historical consciousness in the poem by looking at the concept as having to do with a broader issue instead of limiting it to just the poet’s memory of the past but as a “collective memory” of the negro spiritual, a theory of history that is closely related to that of Jorn Rusen. This essay discusses different issues in its different paragraphs and those will be discussed in the subsequent paragraphs of this critical summary.
The first issue discussed in the essay by the writers, is the kind of history that is being taught in American schools. Langston Hughes in the poem, according to the writers, poses a question of what a change in the historical recordings or distorting image of the African history would do to young people because they are being taught to forget their real history – the transatlantic slave trade which was called the “Middle Passage”, making them to believe that the blacks are insignificant when it comes to the matter of human civilization. This false-fact is what Hughes in the poem refutes in the following lines: “I looked upon the Niles and raised the pyramids above”, to prove that blacks also had a part to play in the cause of human civilization.
Another issue raised in this essay by the writers is the poem’s appellation, which had been wrongly interpreted by some persons who have not really come to understand the historical background of the black world. Dieke, one of the writers of this essay, relates his experience as regards the title of the poem while on a high school speaking tours, in the cause of writing this paper, where a student questions the idea of using the word “negro” on the title instead of picking or specifying a particular speaker and a teacher’s frustrating and erroneous response to the student that perhaps, the poet had used it for the purpose of an effect which the teacher doesn’t seem to know. He (Dieke) brings the same question to his co-writer of this essay, Igwedibia, who elucidated explicitly what the title meant. According to her, Langston Hughes had actually used it to show an effect - an effect which the teacher had failed to recognize. She points out that the poet had used the term “negro” in order to make readers understand that it was not just a single black person that was recalling the lives of his “forebears”, rather, it has been used to represent the “collective experience of the entire black race” – meaning that the poet used a “collective persona” which embodies and articulates “a race’s collective unconscious.” The writers posits that the beginning of that history is being echoed in different lines of the poem: line four, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young”; line five, “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep”; “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it”. All these, according to the writers are facts which prove that the black people were part of the world’s first civilization and that these great black men were architects of the pillars which had made the world wonderful. The writers are of the opinion that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a poem in which the strength and endurance of the black race and those that descended from them is reveled and recreated.
More so, the deeper implication of the poem is also given prominence in the essay. The poem is said to be an account of the past which would enable one to know how the Negros got into their present situation and this past will also shape the view of the future because according to the writers, for Hughes, one is able to identify the way forward only when one has looked back to his past or the things one had been through. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” according to the writers, does not just talk about the historical past, but also how that past will help the younger generation of the Negros to understand their future because the rivers which have been known by the blacks are: “Africa”, the land of their ancestors, and “America” their present dwelling place.
The writers posits that the rivers mentioned in the poem by Hughes reminds us of the deep cultural history of the African-Americans and that the activities of the speaker in lines four to nine, all reveal that African-Americans have taken part and contributed one way or the other throughout history. Most importantly, not just their contributions but also “spiritual depth they have got in the cause of a long, tortuous journey from slavery to freedom”. The poem presents all these, especially the pains of racism and slavery in a manner which tries to subdue the anger which comes from such experience and at the same time, projects how the Negros were able to survive these injustices.
The writers also posit that line four of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is the poet’s own way of “expressing a personal awareness of and connection to his roots.” The speaker is able to remember his roots despite his current state of being and through this singular act, he suggest a person can actually have peace of mind when he constantly remain in touch with the heritage of his ancestors no matter where he finds himself and the heritage which Hughes relates is that which is filled with pain and struggle for survival from slavery and racial discrimination which he is hoping would turn around for good some day in the future.
Towards the end of the essay it is noted that there is a theme which pervades this poem and that is the theme of “root”. Root in the poem has taken two definitions, as one is used to refer to the root of plants and the other definition is linked to the human background or ancestry. The writers posit that the poem is about “root and circuits” and that the poet, through the lines of poem warns against cultural amnesia because according to Dieke and Igwedibia, Hughes in the poem reveals that our “understanding of the historical past shapes our sense of the present and the future, and also that it has serious implications for the politics of collective identity, collective memory, the identity and memory of an erstwhile oppressed people.
- Quote paper
- B. A. Chidinma Dike (Author), 2020, A Critical Summary of “Walking Backwards into Tomorrow: Poet Langston Hughes, Collective Memory, and the Construction of Historical Consciousness”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/923034