"Near the Congo": Langston Hughes and the Geopolitics of Internationalist Poetry
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"Near the Congo":
Langston Hughes and the Geopolitics of Internationalist Poetry

It is remarkable that after Langston Hughes's prolific, nearly 50-year literary career, his first published poem (excepting some juvenilia) remains perhaps his best known. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921), with an opening couplet whose long, reflective second line begins by repeating the first line, has become a signature meditation on heritage and ancestry: "I've known rivers: / I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins" (1-2).1 Originally published in the June 1921 issue of the Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the poem "promptly became, along with the [W. E. B.] Du Bois editorials and Jean Toomer's 'Song of the Son,' the voice of the Association itself" (Bontemps 122). As it traverses major waterways on three continents, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" inaugurates Hughes's relationship with the Congo, which makes it representative of an ongoing internationalist sensibility both in his verse and in the larger cultural movement of which it is a part.

While references to modern Africa abound in African-American poetry of the 1960s and are understood to be products of the confluence of African national independence movements and the Black Arts movement, Hughes's earliest poetry suggests a continuity that extends back at least to the 1920s. Throughout his career, Hughes maintained an active association with a range of political and literary institutions in which the Congo was a [End Page 631] contemporary political figure, rather than a romantic image. While Hughes's late poems from the 1960s include indisputably political references to the Congo, they are not anthologized or read as frequently as his earlier work. And while "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" remains an integral part of his canon, it is rarely read as a political work that includes Africa and the Arab world. Yet this poem, Hughes's first major publication, reveals some of the ways that an internationalist political sensibility around the figure of the Congo was vital to African-American literary culture at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, and throughout the twentieth century.

Ever since its initial publication, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," accompanied by its geopolitics, has circulated widely. By 1930, the poem had been reprinted at least 11 times, appearing in such major Harlem Renaissance anthologies as The New Negro (1925) and Caroling Dusk (1927) (Dickinson 220-21). The frequent appearances have had the unintended consequence of obscuring the context in which it was written and read, which is crucial because, as Cary Nelson argues, "The first step in reconstructing the history of the poetry of the period . . . is to work to get as close as possible to the actual publications of the period" (181). Journals like the Crisis complemented their creative offerings with broad political coverage, so it is especially important "to see the poetry as part of a whole critical and transformative social project" (Nelson 200). For a writer like Hughes, who "learned to read with The Crisis on my grandmother's lap" (Fight for Freedom 197), the monthly periodical, edited by NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois, was peerless and the "only magazine that came by mail to my grandmother's house in Kansas" ("Golden Anniversary" 253). As I will explain, the poem's early history in the Crisis illuminates a political geography that, through the figure of the Congo, extends from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts movement.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" captures a seemingly calm and peaceful African landscape when Hughes's poetic persona proclaims, "I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep" (5). For Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" reinterprets Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" in presenting the Congo River "as a pastoral, nourishing, maternal setting" (95). Lindsay certainly influenced Hughes, and the poem's pastoral resonance is no doubt partly responsible for its enduring popularity. Yet as this line about the Congo subtly illustrates, such seductive serenity can dull people's full awareness of their surroundings, which here include the poem...