Learning from the Source: The Negro Speaks of Rivers

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Lesson objective

In this primary source lesson students will gain a better understanding of the meaning and tone of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by completing a scaffolded close reading of the poem using multiple source types (written text, spoken word, music, photos, illustrations and maps) while developing personal, lasting connections to literature by creating their own related interpretive pieces.


Writer and poet Langston Hughes was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement, famous for his illuminating and moving depictions of African American life. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was Hughes’s first published poem, appearing in the June 1921 issue of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine The Crisis. Since that time, the poem has been set to music repeatedly, as shown by the sheet music illustrating this post.

Lesson implementation

  1. Play this excerpt of a YouTube video featuring Langston Hughes reciting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers“. (Note: Do not turn on closed captions.)
  2. Instruct students to read the poem slowly and deliberately and then describe their initial reactions to it. Tell them not to worry if there is vocabulary that they don’t understand because you are simply looking for their first emotional response to this poem. Direct students to provide a brief description of how the poem makes them feel, noting specific words or phrases that affected them.
  3. Direct students to read the poem again, underlining any unknown vocabulary and circling specific places mentioned in the poem.
  4. Have a few students share their initials reactions to the poem with the class.
  5. As a class, review unknown vocabulary. Point out places on maps, review geographical information and show images of these places.
  6. Instruct students, in groups, to analyze how specific word choices shape the meaning and tone of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Resources to help students understand tone are included below.
  7. Share student analyses with the entire class.
  8. Direct students to read about Langston’s Early Years (see Today in History: Langston Hughes for more background information and primary sources).
  9. Play this excerpt of a YouTube video featuring Langston Hughes describing how he came to write “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” for the class (stop at 1:38).
  10. As a class, discuss how the information in the article and Hughes’ own words affect their understanding of the poem’s meaning and tone.
  11. Instruct students to sketch a scene this poem brings to life in the mind’s eye; the scene can be literal or figurative but should embody the poem’s meaning and capture its tone.
  12. Hang a copy of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the classroom along with the student sketches; alternatively, post the poem and digital images of the sketches on a class website or blog.
  13. Show Afua Richardson’s Vimeo video interpreting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in a four-panel comic strip set to the instrumental version of Stalactite by her band, Waking Astronomer.
  14. Have students share their reactions to the illustrations. Then discuss how the music contributed to their understanding of the meaning and tone of the poem.
  15. Assign each student one of the versions of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” set to music by various composers/musicians. Tell them to listen to the song and to pick a section that they find powerful, noting the start and end time of the video, and to describe how this piece of music affects their understanding of the meaning of the poem, the tone or both.
  16. Have a few students share their selections and descriptions.
  17. In groups or individually, instruct students create a song to accompany “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. They may recite or sing the lyrics. The song can be audio only or they can create a video with accompanying visuals, such as text, images and video.
  18. Share student songs with the entire class and, if possible, post on the class website or blog. We’d love to have you share links to student work via the comments section as well!

CCSS standards alignment

Note: consult the Common Core State Standards for your particular grade for more explicit guidance.

  • Reading
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
  • Speaking & Listening
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
  • Writing
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.