Langston Hughes’ “The Bitter River” is one of the most powerful, moving, and elegiac poems that I have read. In the poem, Hughes memorializes the deaths of two boys who were unjustly lynched in 1942, describing the societal stigma against black Americans as a bitter river. Hughes’ use of figurative language in this poem inverts the stock image of the revitalizing river to instead communicate the reality of the bitter river that kills and drains the power from black Americans “forced” (55-56; 62) to drink from its waters. Indeed, healing is also associated with the traditional use of rivers in writing; however, Hughes’ language does not support this meaning as he describes a river that is “dark with filth and mud” (6) and injected with “evil poison” (7). Moreover, lines 9-37 describe the bitter river as one that drowns hopes, strangles dreams, and reflects no transcendence but only imprisonment and continued oppression:
I’ve drunk of the bitter river
And its gall coats the red of my tongue,
Mixed with the blood of the lynched boys
From its iron bridge hung,
Mixed with the hopes that are drowned there
In the snake-like hiss of its stream
Where I drank of the bitter river
That strangled my dream:
The book studied-but useless,
Tool handled-but unused,
Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
Ambition battered and bruised.
Oh, water of the bitter river
With your taste of blood and clay,
You reflect no stars by night,
No sun by day.
The bitter river reflects no stars—
It gives back only the glint of steel bars
And dark bitter faces behind steel bars:
The Scottsboro boys behind steel bars,
Lewis Jones behind steel bars,
The voteless share-cropper behind steel bars,
The labor leader behind steel bars,
The soldier thrown from a Jim Crow bus behind steel bars,
The 150 mugger behind steel bars,
The girl who sells her body behind steel bars,
And my grandfather’s back with its ladder of scars
Long ago, long ago—the whip and steel bars—
The bitter river reflects no stars.
Hughes utilizes repetition and rhyme at the end of each line in the second stanza above to highlight the bitter river’s reflection of steel bars in each of the lives mentioned and to solidify the feeling of hopelessness. As the poem continues, the phrase “swirl of the bitter river” is repeated three times (40, 44, and 48). Hughes’ use of “swirl” continues the initial movement of the river as “flowing” in line 2 and describes the river’s impact to take away, carry away, and sweep away the false hope, or “lies” offered by white Americans (indicating that the speaker thinks that the flow of the bitter river [or oppression] will continue?). Indeed, the form/language of the poem seems to imitate the flow of a river as its stanzas move forward and then recirculate with the repetition of certain poignant phrases. Repetition reigns in the final lines (74-89) which lament how weary the speaker is of the current racial reality through the word tired.
As I re-read the poem, I keep returning to the fifth stanza which reflects a haunting truth from the speaker’s own experience: “I did not ask for this river / Nor the taste of its bitter brew / I was given its water / As a gift from you” (50-53). Moreover, line 54 strikes me to the core, as the speaker calls out his oppressive addressees: “Yours has been the power / To force my back to the wall / And make me drink of the bitter cup / Mixed with blood and gall” (54-57). I can hear him crying out—It’s all on YOU! I didn’t’ ask for this! The agency he assigns to his addresses correlates perfectly with the agency Hughes attributes to the river as a symbol of oppression.
In her poem “Skit: Sun Ra Welcomes the Fallen,” Ruth Ellen Kocher offers a more hopeful perspective of “the sublime horror of our racial reality.” Kocher explains the form and intention of her poem: “This poem makes myth out of tragedy as a way to cope with the sublime horror of our racial reality. We hear stories of black men and boys being gunned down everyday. Most of us wake up in the morning without expecting such a narrative to unfold in our own lives but, for me, and most other Black Americans, the body in the street is my husband. The body is my son. The body is my grandson who was sitting with me last night on the couch eating pizza. Sun Ra is a fantastic and mythic hope, a cosmic embrace, that refuses the familiar narrative of slain black bodies.” Hughes utilizes figurative language to communicate his elegy, while Kocher juxtaposes reality and myth to talk about the racial issues of today. Alluding to the mythic Egyptian god of the sun “Ra” and the jazz artist Sun Ra’s “cosmic philosophy” influence, Kocher’s poem definitely seems more hopeful than Hughes’ poem which cannot glimpse into the cosmos for lack of a “reflection.”
“Skit: Sun Ra Welcomes the Fallen” | Ruth Ellen Kocher
Jupiter means anger. Sun Ra does not. Sun Ra dances the Cake Walk on Saturn’s pulpy eyes. If you believe that, I’ll tell you another one. The first is 13 and the next is 20. They were not good boys but they were boys. They were boys who died for this thing or that. The next was 16 and the last was 18. One had a cell phone. One had a gun. On earth, a goose opens its chest to a sound. The goose takes the bullet this way. A sacrifice denied to the wind since there is no such thing as sacrifice anymore having succumbed to fever and the millennium. The bullet is all consequence. Sun Ra refuses red—long and high, low and deep. His arms are long enough to embrace them.
~ More info about jazz artist Sun Ra: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Ra