Rivers of Struggle and Despair


In a previous post (the link is below) I gave a brief biographical sketch of James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967). Langston Hughes, poet, playwright, writer, novelist, children’s writer and a leading advocate of what it meant to be African-American, was a remarkable man.

I was looking at one of my books—which I purchased for a dollar from a used literature book sale (2076 pages of literary gems from the past) at a university English Department. I am fortunate to be so close to a number of colleges and universities.

On page 1016 there is a poem by Mr. Hughes.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers 1926

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.

The visible imagery and metaphors of this poem speak to each of us since we all are human beings sharing this planet traversing the cosmos. The rivers of struggle and despair touch every soul, especially those over the millennia whose brothers felt the need to enslave and sell their fellow humans like chattel at the market places originating along the rivers of history.

Perhaps, the first river mentioned, the Euphrates, harkened back to Genesis 2 when the earth was fresh and new. The dawns on a new world were very young and pristine as were the eyes of men and women who beheld those dawns over the great river of Eden.

As humans migrated they chose to settle near rivers. The Congo River with its thousands of miles/kilometers dominated Central and West Africa where men and women lived, grew crops, hunted, struggled and died.

The Nile River is the longest river on the east side of Africa. Here Egyptian civilization has thrived for thousands of years, and the great monuments built by blood, sweat and tears (many lashes on the backs of the laborers) still stand as symbols of the ancients.

The great Mississippi River of North America was dotted with Native Americans long before any European saw it with their envious eyes. As the centuries passed, the great river took on new meaning as slaves lined the southern banks working in the cotton fields and other areas of commerce from sunrise to sunset. The great songs of an enthralled populace reverberated down and up the streams of the country.

The river afforded the hope of escape for a slave who could reach its northern banks. As history records, the river was stained with blood from the men, women and children who lived, fought and died along its banks.

According to the account Mr. Hughes was traveling by train when he saw the sunset on the Mississippi. Perhaps, in his mind he saw the beauty painted on the river and recalled its history and the struggle for freedom in the light of a new day.

Rivers are symbols of beauty and misery, hope and despair, bondage and freedom. Life is connected to the rivers of earth.

Humans have the unique trait of betraying their humanity. How you treat others on the road of life is a reflection of your soul, whether bathed in the young dawn of creation or the old sunset of oppression.

G. D. Williams © 2015

POST 597

James Mercer Langston Hughes


Genesis 2 Lexham English Bible (LEB)

10 Now[p] a river flowed out from Eden that watered the garden, and from there it diverged and became four branches. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It went around all the land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stones are there.) 13 And the name of the second is Gihon. It went around all the land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third is Tigris. It flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The Euphrates River


The Congo River


The Mississippi River