Common Place Book #8

“I’ve known rivers:

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

– “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

Many aspects of the first stanza from Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” stood out to me, the first of which is the repetition of the line “I’ve known rivers.” What caught my interest was the fact that Langston Hughes used the word I. By using the word I, it really is not the Negro who speaks of rivers, but all African Americans who are speaking of these rivers. It is the embodiment of the African American experience that makes this poem by Hughes so powerful. The story that Hughes tells in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is not one of one person but of an entire race with their own important history.

Hughes highlights the long history of African Americans, both in the second line, and through the allusions made throughout the poem. All of the rivers that Hughes speaks of later in the poem, the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi, have played immense roles in human history. By introducing and emphasizing the fact that African American know rivers and have known them for a long time in the first stanza, Hughes sets the stage for the history that he will lay out in the later portion of the poem.

One aspect of this opening stanza that perplexed me was his use of the word human twice in the second line. In my opinion, stating that human blood is in human veins seems unnecessary, as I do not know of another type of vein that it would be in. The idea that Hughes could be highlighting is the humanity of African Americans. Many African Americans were looked at as below human by whites. To contrast this thought, Hughes emphasizes that they have been human since there was blood in human veins.

Overall, I believe that Hughes provides a very powerful opening stanza to his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The message that he is trying to get across is one full of meaning and that deserves a poem that is as beautifully worded as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

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