The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (811 HuN 2009 PIC BK) is a breath taking book that gives me goose bumps. The words and pictures beautifully coalesce to provoke a strong response from me every time I read it.
This short poem speaks of the history (even prehistory) of African-Americans, making connections with the rivers Euphrates, Nile, and Mississippi. These rivers have flowed for all time creating a sense that African-Americans too have a long, rich heritage associated with rivers. The watercolour illustrations also contribute to the ebb and flow of the poem
The illustrator, E.B. Lewis, includes a note at the end of the book that tells how meaningful the poem became for him and the personal connections he made to it through understanding the power of water as an element and as a metaphor. He goes so far as to include a self-portrait, depicting himself with head bowed in prayer and, in his words, “the river is embracing me.” It is a stunning illustration.
There is a gentleness and calmness to this interpretation of Hughes’ poem that slows the reader down to take in the words and to be filled up with their meaning.
The suggested reading level is certainly appropriate for elementary students but this is the kind of book that the older you are the more you’ll get out of it. Why not try it with older students, too?
Also, check out My People by Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr. (811 HuM 2009 PIC BK), another rendition of Hughes’ poem with awe-inspiring photographs. This is one of my all time favorite books and made my Top 10 of 10 picture books.
I know I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not really into poetry but I think I may have to rethink this position.