Symbolism and Allusion in Langston Hughes' The Negro Speaks of Rivers
In Langston Hughes' poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", he examines some of the roles that blacks have played throughout history. Ultimately, the poem asserts that in every one of these aspects the black people have been exploited and made to suffer, mostly at the hands of white people. The poem is written entirely in first person, so there is a very personal tone, even though the speaker symbolizes the entire black race. The examples of each role cited in the poem are very specific, but they allude to greater indignities, relying on the readers' general knowledge of world history. To convey the injustice that has taken place, Hughes utilizes the symbolism of the speaker, and alludes to people and things in history, such as George Washington and the Egyptian pyramids.
The poem has six stanzas, and in examining the first line of each, we can see that the first and last are the same: "I am a Negro...I've been a slave...I've been a worker...I've been a singer...I've been a victim...I am a Negro." Under each of these headings there are either two or three lines which further explicate the essence of what it means to be a black worker, a black singer, etc. Under the line, "I've been a victim" the speaker says, "The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi." These lines demonstrate that obviously the speaker is symbolic of the black race, and is not just one person. However, the author wrote them as if it were one person and that proves to be very effective, especially in this stanza. The use of the first person voice allows the author to illustrate suffering in a very personal way, while simultaneously making the statement that each person carries with them the suffering, if not the experience, of past generations.
In the second stanza, the poem reads, "I've been a slave: / Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean. / I brushed the boots of Washington." Both of the two latter lines allude to different historical figures. "I brushed the boots of Washington" can be interpreted literally, but the greater meaning can be seen...