The theme of Langston Hughes' poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is the journey of African identity through history. Hughes adopts the singular first-person point of view and transforms it to encompass the entire African identity as he takes the reader on a journey through African history and heritage.
The poem was published in "The Crisis" magazine in 1921. "The Crisis" was the journal for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The poem was dedicated to W.E.B Du Bois, who was the editor of the journal at the time.
Hughes is said to have gained inspiration for the poem during the year following his graduation from high school. As he was taking a train home, Hughes caught a glimpse of the Mississippi River bathed in golden sunlight, which led to his choosing rivers as the main topic of the poem. The work discusses not only the hardships that the African people have faced, but also the effect that those hardships have had on the souls of the people. Hughes suggests that "he has known rivers" as a means of illustrating the historical experiences of African people, and that his "soul has grown deep like the rivers" to express the wisdom gained from these experiences. Hughes was one of the first African American writers able to support themselves financially through their writing.