Of the many characteristics that stand out in Walt Whitman’s poetry, one of the most overwhelming is the importance given to the sense of place and connectedness that is found through examining one’s roots, and in the realization that all of us have a more common past than we may have first thought, whether it be through land, history, experience, etc.
As I read one of Langston Hughes’s most well-known poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” I could see how Hughes felt these inexorable ties to his people’s history just as deeply as Whitman felt them for the American people as a whole. Hughes uses the powerful imagery of the river, a force of nature that is all-together primitive, strong, and unifying as it ties all the masses of land together, in order to entwine the epic past of his people with his own soul. As an African-American, he is steeped in the beginning of the world, the ancient and revered practices of his ancestors, and the history of America itself in all its triumphs and pitfalls. So, Hughes wants us to see that the history he and his people possess is one that commands attention and esteem. Further, Hughes is showing us that America is built on his negro ancestors; without them, the America we know today would not have been built or flourished as it did. Hughes is trying to prove to us that no one understands the American dream more than his people, who have been denied and kept low for years.
This is classic Whitman, reinterpreted in order to accomplish Hughes’s ulimate goals of respect and equality for his people. The message, the imagery, and the deep sense of power that Hughes harnesses makes me believe that Whitman would have absolutely loved his poem. Whitman, if anyone, would have really understood.