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Rivers & The Sea

when he passed over the mighty Mississippi,
he realized the rivers of his ancestors he knew:
the Congo, the Nile, the Niger Delta,
and a few more, said Langston Hughes1 

i read his words one scorching Matanzas day
on a locals beach full of natural hair,
surrounded by strangers, friends from far away,
and a revolutionary smell in the air.

no tourists in sight, and i blend in.
they spit rum as offering for the orishas,
thank the taxi driver with cigarette grins,
and invite me to play ball in the sand.

in Africa, Hughes says, he wasn't Black,
wasn't white neither, and wasn't African.
they didn't know what to do with him
and he didn't know how to feel about it.

on Playa El Tenis they don't know  
what to do with me neither:
honorary member of revolutions ago,
anemic guest returning with fever.

pale on the outside, dark in the heart,
one cuban says to me passing the lighter.
i could never say that in the states,
but he indeed saw an african heart.

deep waves whisper stories of the ages:
love interrupted, jumping ships in tears,
and through the ebb and flow of time,
i'm tethered to my forebears here.

if Hughes saw rivers of ancestors past,
then i sit here writing as i see the sea.
in all its glory, i come to know the waters
and how they stole something from me.

(1) This specific reference is to Hughes’ own experiences and reflections on his African heritage, as seen in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) and recounted in his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940). In the chapter titled “I’ve Known Rivers,” he describes how the poem was inspired by a train journey along the Mississippi River, which led him to contemplate the significance of rivers in the lives of Black people, both during slavery and as part of their ancestral connection to Africa.

“I looked out the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South, and I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past—how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage. […] Then I began to think about other rivers in our past—the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa—and the thought came to me: “I’ve known rivers,” and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem, which I called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

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Musa is a cultural worker, community organizer, and independent researcher. They are a member of the Walter Rodney Foundation, and host of the Groundings podcast.

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