Black History Month: ‘I’ve Known Rivers’ Langston Hughes

By Charlotte Stevenson

As York St. John marks Black History Month, Charlotte Stevenson discusses her first encounter with the poetry of Langston Hughes.

‘I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like rivers’.

Langston Hughes had many amazing talents, to name a few of which he was a novelist, playwright and social activist. But chiefly, keeping all of these many gifts together with one common thread, he was a writer. To poetry of the U.S.A, he was and is crucial crucial in his contribution to the evolving American voice through which he captured the history of New York and the Harlem Renaissance in motion. In his writings, history has not passed and we are transported immediately back to to the 1950’s and 60’s where his voice was central to the fight for equality for all black Americans through the Civil Rights Movement.

My first encounter with Langston Hughes was during my second year of studying literature at York St. John during a close reading paper. We studied several of his poems but the one that has really stuck with me and pops up in my thoughts pretty much every day, especially when working on my dissertation about New York in the 1950’s, is The Negro Speaks Of Rivers. After reading this, I became fixated on the work of Hughes and read as much as I could. He is one of my biggest role models and I aspire to write as openly and beautifully as he did in all I do.

Throughout this poem, so short and yet so poignant, Hughes discusses the history of segregation and oppression of black individuals across the globe. More specifically, he follows this journey up to the present and does it all through the metaphor of rivers, from ‘Abe Lincoln’ down in New Orleans via the Mississippi back to the Nile and the Congo. How these rivers connect and flow, just like veins in the body, how they connect all of us around the globe both past and present. For him, the world is a living body that is witness to all of the pain inflicted by white hands towards black men and women because of their race; it is a world which tells this story to those who stop to listen.

In approaching racism and discrimination in this way, Langston Hughes emphasises that all of these rivers feed into one another, creating one constantly running body of water that never stops. Because of this, heritage is also a massive part of what he expresses in that just as veins of water meet in the river, many experiences unite to make one experience; many lives connect and become one life when it comes to defending Civil Rights and fighting for the right to learn to read, to have an education, to have liberty and to be an individual.

I’ve found this idea of heritage and working together to pursue freedom is a recurring idea of everything I’ve read by Hughes since that first poem. In writing and passing down stories, there is a legacy that is constantly being added to which must prevail no matter how much it is oppressed; the more it is pushed back, the more those voices speaking truth must push forward to be heard.

Especially now in our Twenty-First Century age where we are constantly fighting against the stream of fake news and loud voices shouting facts grounded on thin air, that honesty which we know in ourselves and in our observations of what is right and wrong must prevail. Hughes demands through sharing his thoughts that we do not sit idly by without saying what we truly think. What Hughes stresses is the need for that ‘flow of human blood in human veins’, all of those voices who have remained in silence, to persevere in being heard no matter what it takes. That straightforward honesty is vital to the thoughts he shaped and put out into the world to make positive change.

But what most strikes me about this poem, about Langston Hughes and what will always stay with me is that, even in the darkest of times and when so much history has passed before us, hope will always remain. And it is a hope that has survived being trampled, beaten, imprisoned and enslaved; a hope that is all encompassing and undying. A hope through which each of our souls has the opportunity to grow deep ‘like the rivers’ that have carried us all forward so far. A hope that we can have the courage to step forward and stop tradition from being the way we do things just because it is how things ‘have always been done’. A hope that shows there is a goodness to humanity, to one another, that will enable us to make a better world in which all people are treated equally. A world in which all people are treated as people.