Bibliographic note: The version of this poem published in The Weary Blues (1926) contains the inscription: "To W.E.B. Du Bois."
General notes: This is Langston Hughes' most widely anthologized poems and probably one of the most recognizable and celebrated poems of the Harlem Renaissance. It was also the first poem published by Langston Hughes in a national magazine (he published others as a high school student in Cleveland in his high school magazine). He describes writing it in the summer of 1920, while en route to Mexico to stay with his father. At that time, Hughes was eighteen years old and had not yet started his college education.
Hughes has an extensive account of writing the poem in his autobiography, "The Big Sea" (1939):
"The one of my poems that has perhaps been most often reprinted in anthologies, was written on the train during this trip to Mexico when I was feeling very bad. It’s called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and was written just outside St. Louis, as the train rolled toward Texas.
"It came about in this way. All day on the train I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much. One of the happiest jobs I had ever had was during my freshman year in high school, when I worked behind the soda fountain for a Mrs. Kitzmiller, who ran a refreshment parlor on Central Avenue in the heart of the colored neighborhood. People just up from the South used to come in for ice cream and sodas and watermelon. And I never tired of hearing them talk, listening to the thunderclaps of their laughter, to their troubles, to their discussions of the war and the men who had gone to Europe from the Jim Crow South, their complaints over the high rent and the long overtime hours that brought what seemed like big checks, until the weekly bills were paid. They seemed to me like the gayest and the bravest people possible—these Negroes from the Southern ghettos—facing tremendous odds, working and laughing and trying to get somewhere in the world.
"I had been in to dinner early that afternoon on the train. Now it was just sunset, and we crossed the Mississippi, slowly, over a long bridge. I looked out the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South, and I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past—how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage. Then I remembered reading how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft to New Orleans, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life. Then I began to think about other rivers in our past—the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa—and the thought came to me: “I’ve known rivers,” and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem, which I called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” ("The Big Sea," pp. 64-65)