According to Hughes, the poem was written while he was on a train crossing the Mississippi River on the way to visit his father in Mexico in 1920, he was 17 years old at the time. Twenty years after its publication, Hughes suggested the poem be turned into a Hollywood film but the project never went forward.:305
In his early writing, including "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", Hughes was inspired by American poet Carl Sandburg. Like many of Hughes's other writings, the poem depicts an African-American who recognizes and reaffirms his connection to Africa and uses that African heritage as a source of pride.:169
^Miller, R. Baxter. "(James) Langston Hughes." American Poets, 1880-1945: Second Series. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 48. Literature Resource Center. Web. Accessed on 23 Aug. 2013.