Monday, June 20, 2011

Teleportation & Hughes's "Negro Speaks of Rivers": An Afrofuturist Reading

A floating hut on the Congo River.
In some respects, if we're doing an AF reading of Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," we can view the poem as a blueprint for the wonders of teleportation. Interestingly, the word teleportation was coined in 1931, ten years after the initial publication of Hughes's poem.

Hughes did not invent the term teleportation nor the concept, but he was apparently applying the idea of moving across great distances of time and place in the piece. The speaker of the poem mentions bathing in the Euphrates River during ancient times, living near the Congo River, spending time along the Nile River, and much later being within earshot of the Mississippi River. 

The idea that a single person could live long enough and travel so widely as to see and occupy spaces near those rivers is a spectacular fantasy or simply a speculative narrative. The focus on African American speculative narratives so prevalent in afrofuturist discourse is what inclines me to view the poem as an example of teleportation--a popular idea in science fiction, made most famous perhaps with the Star Trek Transport Effect.

Hughes's poem also relies on the notion of virtual kinship, a speculative idea so intricately woven or wired into African American thought, history, and discourse that it is rarely seen as speculative. In just four short lines, the speaker of Hughes's poem charts a lineage from Mesopotamia to the Congo to the third millennium or 2055 BC and 1650 BC Egypt when pyramids were being built to the banks of the Mississippi as Lincoln traveled down the river in 1831. Beyond the rivers, what links the (Negro) speaker to those different locales, various ethnic groups, and distant time periods is a presumable shared kinship. 

The claim that a kinship is fictive and virtual serves to highlight the constructed, selective, and word or narrative-driven nature of binding a variety of people and peoples. Hughes could only create a black speaker aligning himself with distinct groups over time and place if he was already linked to networks of thought and practice that promoted black virtual kinship, and the wide circulation of the poem over the last 90 years helps to maintain, if not dramatize, the idea of interconnectivity among different peoples of African descent.

Overall then, based on an AF reading at least, we can say that Hughes showcases the interconnectivity of black people in his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and he achieves this feat by drawing on the notion of virtual kinship and illustrating possibilities associated with teleportation. 

Hughes's poem links with several well-known poems in African American literary history, including Nikki Giovanni's "Ego-Tripping," which opens with the line "I was born in the Congo" and like Hughes's speaker, shows Giovanni teleporting to various, far-flung geographical locations and different moments in history.  Amiri Baraka has several works that highlight the ideas of kinship and teleportation, taking readers on all kinds of rides across time and space. In his well-known poem "Negative," Kevin Young presents a world where black and white subjects are reversed. Poet Tracie Morris does all kinds of adaptions with her voice.

There are many, many other examples that lend themselves to rewarding AF interpretations. I'm slowly going to start discussing them.

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