African American, History, Poetry, Environmentalism


In 1921 Langston Hughes penned, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (Hughes 1254). Weaving the profound pain of the African American experience with the symbolism of the primordial river, Hughes recognized the inherent power of water as a means of spiritual communication and religious significance. Departing from the traditional interpretation of the American pastoral as typified by white poets such as Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, the African American poets emerging from the Harlem Renaissance established a more nuanced pastoral landscape embedded within urban cultures, utilizing water in particular as a reflection of African American spirituality, identity, and experience. Understanding the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural rebirth for both American culture and the early twentieth-century African American community, I draw on writers such as Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps to posit that their use of the fluid pastoral is a mechanism of spiritual, cultural, and physical renewal, despite being perpetually surrounded by urban landscapes. Through their collective reinterpretations of the American pastoral, I argue that the literary landscapes of the Harlem Renaissance not only evolve American poetics and modern natural aesthetics as increasingly inclusive of multiple understandings of the pastoral, including bodies of water and the water of the human body, but also widen the understanding and scope of nature to include transatlantic and urban environments. Moreover, Harlem Renaissance poets emphasize water’s integral connection to African American spirituality as a means of rebirth, survival, and conservation.

Issue and Volume

Vol. 11, no. 1