Langston Hughes’s The Negro Speaks of Rivers was written at a time when black people were striving for racial freedom in the United States of America. This poem was written to give pride, confidence and dignity to black people, so that they will have the courage to speak up for themselves and stop the injustice of racial segregation. Langston Hughes uses multiple literary devices to achieve these main ideas and reclaim the rich culture and history that African Americans had lost to slavery and segregation.
The first literary device Langston Hughes uses to show African American pride is the connotation of the phrase “The Negro”. In the title of this poem The Negro Speaks of Rives, Hughes uses the term “The Negro” not to talk about how ‘a man’ is talking about rivers but how ‘a people’ are knowingly speaking about rivers; the lifeblood of civilization. This is telling African Americans that even though their ancestors were uprooted from their homeland and shipped over as slaves, each and every one of them has a valuable culture and history that needs to be reclaimed and valued.
Another way Hughes displays the pride and courage that African American should have is through personification. An important use of personification in this poem is where Hughes writes “I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young”. This shows that African Americas have not only been a part of civilization since its birth, because the Euphrates is a major river in the Fertile Crescent and was the birthplace of modern civilization, but also the personification of “dawns” being “young” shows that African Americas have been a people since the emergence of human kind. This demonstrates that African Americas people are just as important as every other group of people, and should be proud of who they are and stand up against being bullied around just because of their skin color.
A third literary device Langston Hughes employs to bring pride to African Americans is a simile, where he writes, “my soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This is saying that the African American’s soul - their personality and who they are as a people -has “grown deep” and become knowledgeable and wise “like the rivers”. The Euphrates, Nile and Mississippi are symbols of civilization, strength and freedom, and comparing African American’s spirit to rivers, Hughes implies that African American’s are strong, mighty and proud like the rivers.
A final way Hughes uses literary devices in his poem to inspire African American’s to stand up to segregation is through diction. Hughes uses diction in the title, where he writes “speaks” instead of a word like ‘talks’. “Speaks” implies knowledge, wisdom, and passion about the topic the person is describing, whereas ‘talks’ is simplistic and not as powerful, as anybody can ‘talk’ about something without knowledge, using a few minor facts. Hughes also uses diction in the line, “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it”. Hughes uses “raised” instead of a word like ‘built’. When a person uses the word ‘built’ they can be talking about building a sand castle, whereas when Hughes utilizes the word “raised” it instills a sense of awe, and implies that they have built something important that will last a thousand years. Hughes uses diction to show his fellow African Americans that they have played a crucial role in the course of human civilization, so they should be proud of who they are as they contain the knowledge of all mankind.
In conclusion Langston Hughes uses literary terms to not only enrich his writing but to empower, give pride and courage to African Americans so that they will stand up to racial segregation. The use of literary devices enable Hughes to put a deeper meaning into his poem and display a sense of pride to stir the reader into wanting to fight for freedom from racial segregation and reclaim the rich history that African Americas have. In addition, Hughes does something even subtle and powerful while stating the importance of rivers. Hughes puts the Congo river on the same level as the Euphrates, Nile and Mississippi, simultaneously placing African culture on the same height and level of importance as other civilizations that have guided the course of human history. So when “The Negro” speaks of rivers he is speaking as an equal to the rest of humanity, and the rest of humanity he should treat him equally.