“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: Langston Hughes and Ecocolonial Poetry

 

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

In his monograph Black Sin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon notes the many ways in which the descendants of Africa have been linked with the natural realm, often in a disparaging manner. He writes that they have been referred to as beasts, or have been identified as “the missing link between the ape and man” (13), and that even when a Black man’s appearance is being complimented, he is referred to as a ‘colt’ or ‘stud’ (145).  Fanon, does see a link between the people of African and nature, but he views it in a more positive light.  He notes that the people of Africa have a “sympathetic affinity with the earth” (14).  He frames the descendants of Africa as a component of the natural realm, saying that they are “truly a drop of sun under the earth” (14), and praising the “bond between Man and the Earth” (106).  This link with nature was a common theme during the Harlem Renaissance, as demonstrated by Langston Hughes’s seminal poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.  In it, Hughes asserts the link between the descendants of Africa and the natural realm, and by doing so challenges the colonial claims that people of colour had no culture.  In what might be framed as an ecocolonial poem, Hughes, like Fanon, challenges the derogatory associations with the claim that there exists a link between Africans and nature by celebrating this link and demonstrating how empowering it is.

 

Aristotle

Part of what sets this ecological pedigree apart from Western society, which see itself as separate from Nature, is that it posits the people of African as the alumni of a culture whose history extends beyond that of humanity.  Whilst the West may boast of being an extension of Plato, Socrates, or Homer, Hughes notes that the Negro knows of “rivers as ancient as the world and older than the/ flow of human blood” (emphasis added).  Because it is older than the flow of human blood, it carries a wisdom that existed before the writings of Aristotle or Virgil.  Its wisdom predates antiquity, and so has seniority over the most senior thinkers in the Western canon.  Hughes also uses the word ‘known’, which carries the Biblical implication of an intimate knowledge that extends beyond a cursory awareness.  The word ‘known’ is usually employed to describe sex.  For example, a woman who has ‘known’ men is not a virgin, and therefore has carnal knowledge and is considered mature.  Though there is clearly no sexual implications in Hughes’s poem, there is an allusion to a mature knowledge that has superseded the naivety of youth, and so the knowledge the Negro of the poem has of rivers is more comprehensive and intimate than that knowledge that others might possess.  By linking the Negro with a wisdom older than antiquity, and articulating his intimate knowledge of this wisdom, Hughes demonstrates how far reaching and comprehensive the Negro’s knowledge is.

 

 

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon

The spiritual/religious elements called upon through the intertextual reference implicit in the word ‘known’ is reinforced when Hughes writes that the Negro’s “soul has grown deep like the rivers”.  In calling upon the soul, he is referencing the essence of what the West believes differentiates humanity from Nature, the soul, and places this link between the Negro and Nature within the spiritual realm.  Hughes defines this essence against the natural realm, stating that the Negro’s soul is as deep as the rivers, thereby highlighting how Nature provides the standard against which humanity measures its defining characteristics.  This is consistent with Fanon, who writes that for Africans, “the body is not in opposition to what [the West] call[s] the soul”, suggesting a link between the corporeal and the spiritual and mirroring the link between the people of Africa and Nature.  Moreover, Hughes’s ecological metaphor proves to be the greater authority that the West’s enlightened ideologies, and because it is the Negro that is linked with Nature, the Negro’s soul has a deeper history than the soul of a Westerner.  Thus, though the West alludes to this link with nature as a demerit, Hughes demonstrates that this link with nature make the Negro a greater authority.

 

Image borrowed from here.

Image borrowed from here.

Hughes also calls upon this link to demonstrate a ‘Black’ or ‘Negro’ culture that extends beyond antiquity.  One of the key justifications for colonialism (from the colonial mindset) is the belief that the colonized subjects were ‘savages’ who had no culture and that the colonizing forces were thus improving the lives of the colonized, or at the very least had a right to assert authority over them as superior, cultured beings.  Hughes undercuts this, writing that the Negro has “looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it”, an allusion to the Egyptian pyramids and the Nile.  This is important for several reasons.  First and foremost, Egypt is a part of Africa and therefore is the product of African culture.  Moreover, it is the oldest recorded cultures in human history, stretching past antiquity and reaching into prehistoric times.  Thus, their cultural tenure supersedes Western culture.  They are also among the first cultures to have written language, which is, for some, the defining characteristic of culture.  The Nile is especially important because it was essentially the birth of any number of fields of human thinking.  The plethora of plant life that grew along its coast, for instance, was used to develop humanity’s understanding of medicine.  It helped to innovate transportation via aquatic crafts, and allowed for the development of irrigation and advancements in farming.  This helped to create a structured economic system, which has gone onto shape contemporary economics.  Medicine.  Transportation. Farming.  Economics.  Each of these have branched off from the Nile and from Egypt, and are therefore demonstrative of the influence that the peoples of Africa had in shaping Western culture.  Moreover, they collectively serve to demonstrate that the people of Africa did indeed have culture, dispelling the myth that the peoples of Africa had not culture.

 

 

Euphrates (image borrowed from here).

Euphrates (image borrowed from here).

Hughes adds multiple dimensions to this, including the people of Asian and linking them with Africa.  In one line, Hughes writes that the Negro “bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young”, referring to a river that was critical to human development in western Asia.  This alludes to links between Egypt and Asia, which were trade partners as early as 6000 BCE.  This is not only empowering for the people of Africa, but also for racialized groups originating from Asia, whose culture also predates Western culture.  What is particularly important to draw from this is the fact that two cultures, African and Asia, both of which would later be colonized by the West, had not only established culture before the West, but that they shared in a cultural osmosis without any Western presence.  In this way, Hughes highlights how the West comprised only a small portion of the world, and that these two massive cultures were capable of growth without interference from the West.

 

 

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

The poem, though, is not trapped in the past, as Hughes also underscores the importance of the link between humanity and nature in the present. Hughes fast tracks his poetic history lesson, quantum leaping the Negro from prehistoric times to the Mississippi River during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, noting that the Negro “heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/ went down to New Orleans”.  This is an allusion to the first time that Lincoln saw slavery firsthand.  Here, Hughes demonstrates how Nature played a primary role in shaping American history.  One could have noted an alternate transportation method such as a train, much as Walt Whitman did in his classic poem “To a Locomotive in the Winter”. This would have been especially fitting given the famous funeral train that Lincoln’s corpse rode on, but Hughes defines Lincoln’s historic important through the travels he took whilst living, linking him, and by extension American history, with Nature through the Mississippi River.  In this way, Nature is linked with the living, and with the development of American virtue, while the human realm and its innovations in transport are, through their absence, linked to human death and regression.  The implied absence is sharply juxtaposed with what Hughes has included in the poem as he contrasts Lincolns two most famous journeys and demonstrates that Lincoln’s most important journey, the one that shaped American history, was linked with Nature, thus highlighting the value of a link with the natural realm.  This juxtaposition becomes all the more apparent when one learns that Hughes wrote the poem whilst riding a train that passed over the Mississippi river.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” consists of a mere 103 words, and yet Hughes, who was only in his 18th year at the time he wrote the poem, manages to write with an economy of words that allows him take the reader on a journey that reaches beyond antiquity and seamlessly returns to recent American history.  He manages to undermine the authority of the West’s colonial mentality, and praise the link that exists between the people of Africa and Nature.  The reader sees how the West, which has exploited both Nature and the people of Africa, has failed to see the value in a remediation with Nature, and instead has allowed its culture to be tainted by the walls of needless estrangement is has raised through imagined barriers.  In this way, Hughes embraces the pejorative assertions that the descendants of Africa are bestial and inverts it, demonstrating the value of having one’s roots embedded in Nature.  The likes of Whitman had already explored America’s relationship with nature, and so too would Frost, who likewise challenged the needless categories that divided people, but it is Hughes who underscores these sentiments with the most effective and eloquently economical elocution execution of ecocolonial theory.  “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” stands as a template of what poets should aspire for and should be as widely read a poem as any in the American canon.

 

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Works Cited

Hughes, Langston.  “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.   Academy of American Poets.  1920.  Web. Feb. 24, 2016. <https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/negro-speaks-rivers>

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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