Langston Hughes — A poet ‘grown deep like the rivers’

Robert Cotner

Author’s note: For this series, I have chosen four American writers of the 1920s to represent what I consider the dominant literary motifs emerging from American culture in that decade. Each arose from a distinct intellectual vantage point; each carried forth into later generations, and all are with us, in some form, to this day. Presented at the Bluestem Festival of Arts and Humanities, Lake Forest, IL, June 8, 2001.


hile F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life was reflective of the “psychological and spiritual malaise,” which he found in modern life and of which he wrote so eloquently, Langston Hughes felt destiny calling him to become an African-American Walt Whitman.

Shortly after his graduation from Cleveland’s Central High School in Ohio, on June 16, 1920, Langston Hughes took a train south to see his father in Toluca, Mexico. He was riding across the Mississippi River from Illinois to St. Louis, late in the day, as the sun was setting in the west. Hughes’ biographer, Arnold Rampersad, gives these details: “The beauty of the hour and the setting — the great muddy river glinting in the sun, the banked and tinted summer clouds, the rush of the train toward the dark, all touched an adolescent sensibility tender after the gloomy day. The sense of beauty and death, of hope and despair, fused in his imagination. A phrase came to him, then a sentence. Drawing an envelope from his pocket, he began to scribble. In a few minutes Langston had finished a poem . . .

And that poem was “The Negro Speaks of 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.2

“Beauty and death . . . hope and despair” — these are recurrent themes we hear from the 1920s. There was little for an African-American writer of the 1920s to find joyful but the songs of his own soul. Rampant racism prevailed across America: lynchings were still considered legitimate family entertainment in some parts of the country. And everywhere — traveling by train, bus, or auto — African-Americans were assigned back seats, subjected to segregated rest rooms and drinking fountains, and given no room in the inn, for eating or sleeping.

But fortunately, creative African-Americans of the decade, people including Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Alaine Locke, Zora Neal Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, and others heard music in their souls and began singing. They left for us from those dark days rich, bright traditions in scholarship and poetry, as well as in the novel, short story, and stage play. This legacy, sad with irony, but tinged always with beauty and hope, is still cherished today by a wide American population.

Courage must be considered as one of the great virtues to come from African-American writers of this decade. The courage to create, to share creations, to publish, to perform, to dream — that one day, one day, what I think, what I say, what I write will be heard, understood, and appreciated.

Once, while Langston Hughes was working as a busboy in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC, Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay came to read. While Lindsay sat at dinner the evening before his performance, Hughes dropped three of his poems on Lindsay’s table and “fled to the kitchen.”3 Rampersad completes the incident: “That evening, Lindsay startled his large audience by announcing that he had discovered a poet, a bona fide poet, a Negro poet no less, working as a busboy in their very hotel. As proof, he read all three poems to the audience. The next morning Hughes found several white reporters waiting to pepper him with questions about his poetic gift (curious in a Negro) and how he had come by it.4

Rejecting certification for himself, which was offered him in a scholarship to Harvard, Hughes chose, rather, to attend remote and uncelebrated Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to be near and associated with other African- American people. He wrote his friend Carl Van Vechten this explanation: “You see, I’m going into seclusion, weary of the world, like Pearl White when she retired to her convent. And I hope nobody there reads poetry.”5

The move to Lincoln was a part of his unique, deepening experience as poet and person. He emerged from the seclusion of Lincoln University to become, in fact, an African-American Walt Whitman, an affinity he consciously celebrated in his poem, “I, too, sing America”:

I, too, sing America;
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed, —

I, too, am America.6

Courage and hope, fired by genius, gave the separate-and-unequal world in which African-Americans lived a vitality. These virtues ensured the later promise in America of a legacy, which included Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, our own Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others. v

(Next month will feature Robert Frost)

End Notes

1 Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes Vol. I, I, Too, Sing America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 39.

2 Langston Hughes, The Selected Poetry of Langston Hughes, New York: Vintage Books, 1974, p.4.

3 Rampersad, p. 117.

4 Rampersad, p. 117.

5 Rampersad, p. 124.

6 Hughes, Selected Poetry, p. 275.

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