What Is the Meaning of the Poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”?

The central meaning of Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” revolves around the importance of roots and the way they provide meaning in life. Even though the specific word “roots” does not appear in this poem, details in the text point the reader toward rivers, veins, tree roots and other timeless objects. By using images and languages, Hughes creates a dual meaning for this theme, both in terms of depth and heritage.

The idea of roots appears in the very first stanza, as the speaker indicates that he has experienced rivers that are just as old as the world itself, even older than the first human blood. After this, the veins that course through the body are compared to images of winding rivers, and the implication is that this poem has more to comment about than just geographical features and blood vessels but is instead about the root systems that are a part of life. These ancient rivers in the poem are like veins and roots, because they provide the nurturing sustenance that supports life. The connection of ancient civilizations living off rivers gives that sense of roots even further depth, and it is these roots that, to the speaker, give life meaning.