The complexity and fullness of the Harlem Renaissance is a huge topic, and I will not be able to do it justice here. Instead of taking a general view of the movement, I would like to spend some time on one particular essay and one poem by one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, an essay called “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which was published in The Nation in 1926, and the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written in 1920 when Hughes was eighteen years old. I will start with the essay and then come back to the earlier poem.
In the essay, Hughes picks up on DuBois concept of the “color line.” He talks about “high class” blacks drawing the “color line” themselves, meaning that the divisions between white and black society are not simply products of white attitudes, but rather have become part of the consciousness of blacks with rising social status. The color line, Hughes believes, the divide between black and white, has worked its way into the psychology of the educated black person and the black artist, in a sense defining and limiting the black artist’s expression. The black artist, thus, finds him or herself in a trap: to produce art means to them, according to Hughes, to mimic white culture. Hughes criticizes this: to produce real art, he says, is to transcend the color line completely in order to find what is authentic within oneself. But this, Hughes says, is no easy matter, especially in the context of 1920s America. “The road for the serious black artist,” he writes, “who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high.” Hughes cites jazz as an authentic expression of the black spirit.
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul – the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.
And then Hughes’ clarion call at the end of the essay:
We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
The process of self-discovery and self-emancipation was central to Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written half a decade before the essay as Hughes, not yet twenty years old, was on his way to visit his father in Mexico. First, the poem:
The poem begins with “rivers,” and the metaphor of the river resounds or flows throughout. The river is time; it is history. It flows from creation. It contains not one thing but many; it had dimensions, banks, and depth. It connects. It cuts through. It transports. It provides the soil around it with nutrients. A river is a civilization’s great provider and, at times, a dangerous provider. The link between rivers and veins of blood is an incredibly astute one by Hughes. Hughes knows that blood is described in Genesis as the life force and that rivers are the life-force of society.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
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.
Hughes is making a very interesting case here, positing that the individual, in this case the “I” of the poem, is not only a product of flesh and blood, but also contains within himself traces of history, and not just recent history but deep, ancient (even mythic or timeless) history. It is this deep history that shapes the essential being of the character in the poem. But how? First, the narrator’s “soul had growth deep like the rivers.” This is a beautiful image. Rivers deepen over time as they carve their way through the land. This represents the layering of the past and describes the transcendental nature of the individual. The individual is not mere physical form. The “soul” carries within it something much deeper, connected to the flow of time. This is a powerful spiritual image. Then comes some examples of how this process works. We find the “I” of the poem on the Euphrates, shortly after Creation, “when dawns were young.” This connects the narrator to the central story of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The next line, however, pulls the reader completely away from the white world and into Africa: “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.” The Congo is one of the world’s greatest rivers, and it was home to powerful societies and cultures before European intervention in Africa. And yet, the Congo had become famous during Hughes’ time for the incredible brutality of the Belgian King Leopold’s administration. Leopold was plundering the area for rubber, exploiting and basically enslaving the native population. All told, some five million people died as a result of the occupation. The Congo River itself was seen in the Europeans imagination as a beastly river, unnavigable and extremely powerful. Hughes rejects this whitening of the Congo and instead harkens back to a “peaceful” Congo, a Congo before any European domination and exploitation. It is also, of course, a move that locates the Congo civilization among the world’s oldest, situated as it is between Creation and Ancient Egypt. This is the historical depth, the spiritual ancestor of Hughes’ American blackness, and Hughes here is taking part in the movement of global anticolonial struggle with leaders like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois.
The next river in the poem is the Nile, which conures thoughts not only of the pyramids, as referenced in the poem, but of the slavery of the Jews and the Exodus story. The story of the Exodus was one of the most powerful for black American religiosity. Nearly a century earlier, for example, the slave revolt leader Nat Turner imagined himself as a new Moses, who had a mission of liberation given directly by God.
America’s Nile is the Mississippi, and with it, Hughes makes the move from Egyptian slavery to American slavery, and then from slavery to emancipation. The reference to Abe Lincoln going to New Orleans is a coming of age story: the discovery of the depth of the slave condition, the power of slave society and economy. The Mississippi captures this, leading, as it does, from high in the north into the Deep South. But in the poem, the Mississippi is not only historical, not only Lincoln’s, and not just a symbol of slavery and oppression. Here, the river has been transformed; it is both history and beauty, as the narrator witnesses “its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”
The complex set of associations comes together to shape the narrator’s “soul.” The soul is not one thing. It is not slavery; it is not liberation; it is not creation; it is not the force of civilization only. Rather, the soul is a patchwork of all of these elements and impulses and more, just as history itself is no shallow pool, but a deep ocean of experiences that come together to shape society. And a river is not static—it flows, it remakes itself, renews itself with each passing moment. As such, the river reaches into the deep past and forward into the future. The repetition of the refrain at the end of the poem adds solemnity to the poem as a whole, highlighting the narrator’s reflective nature, his cerebral nature, while creating a beautiful rhythmic effect. Such a combination is, indeed, a fitting metaphor for the Harlem Renaissance.