Langston Hughes – Occupy the Page

As part of the “Occupy the Page: Literary Criticism and Activism” festival held March 18-20th, 2013, members of the San Diego State University community chose a poem or piece of prose that they felt exemplified a spirit of literary activism.  This series showcases their commentary, and aims to add to the voices occupying the page.  Special thanks to the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series, Associated Students, and Poetry International for their support of this project.


“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Written when Langston Hughes was 18 years old, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is the foundation of a philosophy that became a crucial element of his work: An understanding and acceptance of self was paramount to the development of African Americans as an established and equal subgroup in America. The poem calls for African Americans to remember both their place in and impact on history. It celebrates the beauty of a people who, despite being free, still suffered from racial segregation. These rivers flow through the veins of his people, and as their blood flows with the ancient and new rivers, they are unified through shared experience.

The narrator of the poem speaks of this unity with a confidence that moves beyond a simple history lesson; it is a first hand record of past experiences. The narrator worked with each person and each hand that built huts near the Congo and raised pyramids above the Nile. It is a collective eye that looks upon the rivers, and to know the rivers is to be an essential part of the lives of all these peoples. They may be from different time periods, nations and civilizations, but Hughes makes it clear that a single voice of modern mankind, a living, breathing soul, can know and be proud of this history. And it is through knowledge and pride that one is empowered to write new chapters in the history of an ancient people.

Langston Hughes’ philosophy culminates in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”:

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

Applied universally, it is a call to action by self representation. If change is to occur, each must know which rivers run through their veins and those who share the waters. A person floating in a current of a unified voice will eventually hear what needs to be said. It is their choice whether to accept it or not, but Langston Hughes knew that enough truth can stir awareness in the most stubborn and closed minds. Those who want to be heard must simply open their mouths and speak of their rivers. A true voice is not lost; it only makes the current stronger.

Dakota Lenz

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