Still recognized as one of the literary giants of America, Langston Hughes played an important role as a writer and thinker of the Harlem Renaissance. This was an artistic movement of African Americans that arose during the 1920s to celebrate the lives and culture of Africans in the United States (“Langston Hughes”). Because most of the African Americans had been brought to the New World as slaves of white masters, it was poets and writers like Hughes, an African American man, that helped to change the perception of African Americans in the minds of the whites once slavery had been abolished.
Hughes’ poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” published in 1926, and “Negro” published in 1958, therefore depict African Americans as ordinary human beings like everybody else, and yet richer in culture and civilization than many others, seeing that they have participated in the construction of the great “pyramids,” mentioned in both poems. Hughes was direct and open about the fact that his writings were meant to uplift the conditions confronting Africans in the United States.They had been slaves, so therefore the whites did not respect them enough even after the abolishment of slavery. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published at the time of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Negro,” on the other hand, was published at a time when racism was considered a huge problem to struggle against in the United States. Many battles were fought to set blacks equal to whites in the minds of all Americans. Hughes’ contribution of the 1950s, his poem “Negro,” was only different to the extent that it was an artist’s contribution.Countless other Africans were fighting on the streets of America to set things right once and for all.
Both poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro,” are expressions of African American identity. The first poem begins thus: “I’ve known rivers… (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). ” In the second as in the first, although the poet has made clear that the narrator is a negro – the poem, “Negro” begins with the words, “I am a Negro (Hughes, “Negro”). ” This emphasis on African American identity has been explained by the poet in an interview thus:One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.
” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any trueNegro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet.
His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is the chief steward at a large white club.The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town.
The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines… (Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”). Because the whites had been masters over African slaves, they were inclined to look down upon Africans. Since the whites were owners of property in America and certainly richer, the blacks longed to be like the whites.
But, Hughes would like the Africans to feel at home in their own skins.With images of rivers as grand as of the Euphrates, the Nile and the Mississippi – the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” reminds the African of his or her historical roots or the history of the great African peoples who have traveled across all of these rivers adding value to the historical streams of cultures. The poem has irregular, long lines without rhythm because it is making a basic point: the African soul is as deep as any human soul could be. The African individual indulges in deep thinking as he travels across ancient rivers.
What he must dwell on is his own identity on foreign soil.Remembering the history of his civilization, he must keep in mind that life carries on. What’s more, even though Africans have traveled many lands, the poet reminds his fellow African that the black race has survived despite all odds (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). Because “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published during the peak of Harlem Renaissance, it refers to depth of the African soul, given that art is often understood as the voice of the soul and the Harlem Renaissance was all about promoting African art and culture in the United States.
Using gentle images such as the Mississippi’s bosom “turning golden in the sunset,” the poet uses his emphasis on rivers to stand as a symbol for the depth of the African soul (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). “Negro,” published during the 1950’s also mentions “depths (Hughes, “Negro”). ” As in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the depths mentioned by Hughes in both poems most likely refer to the depth of African knowledge too. After all, both poems refer to the history of Africans.
Negro,” with its sentence arrangements describing either what had happened to Africans or what they have done in the history of the African civilization – also makes mention of the experiences and/or skills that set Africans apart, for example, slavery and singing (Hughes, “Negro”). The poet represents all Africans in both his poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro. ” What is more, both poems mention the fact that the Africans were part of the labor force that built the ancient pyramids.In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” it was the African who “looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).
” In “Negro,” the pyramid is said to have arisen under the African hand, implying that the African was greatly skilled even at the time of ancient pyramid construction (Hughes, “Negro”). The main difference between the two poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro” is, undoubtedly, the spirit of hope felt through the first poem versus the sense of despair mixed with hope in the second poem.Hughes must have composed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in a different frame of mind altogether. The poem clearly promotes the African American culture and art as originating in the deep history of humanity (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).
Although “Negro” makes mention of world history too, it does not necessarily promote African American art, apart from its reference to singing. The African American may be considered as more of a laborer or low paid worker than an artist in “Negro” (Hughes, “Negro”). Perhaps the poem was not written to promote African American art at all.As mentioned previously, the 1950s saw the whites and blacks of America fighting over the question of equal rights of Africans in almost all major areas of state functioning, including education.
There were severe problems related to racism during this period of American history. Clearly, blacks were being looked down upon. It was in the mood of that hour that Hughes composed “Negro. ” The poem speaks of the ordinariness of the African individual while describing the good uses that Africans have been made of, for example, in the construction of the “Woolworth Building (Hughes, “Negro”).
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is certainly not dismal or depressing like “Negro,” mainly because it does not make mention of slavery and victimization as the second. After all, Hughes is fighting against injustice toward African Americans in the 1950s. In the 1920s, his cause was entirely different. If “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” had made frequent mention of darkness as does “Negro,” the Harlem Renaissance could not have been considered a harbinger of hope (Hughes, “Negro”).