In the broadest sense a symbol is anything which signifies something else. However, in discussing literature, symbol is applied only to a word or set of words that signifies an object or event which itself signifies something else: that is, the words refer to something which suggests a range of things beyond itself.” (Abrams: A Glossary of Literary terms). Symbolism, in a general sense, is the use of imagery so that one object represents something else. “In literature, symbolism is the use of objects or actions to suggest ideas or emotions.” (Coles’ Dictionary of Literary terms). So a poet is a symbolist when he is given to the use of objects or actions to suggest ideas or emotions.
In the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, the “I” or the speaker or the persona of the poem is not the poet himself, nor is he any other person. .The persona stands for or symbolizes the whole race of the Negroes of all times and places of the world. The poet , tries to prove the ancientness of the Negro race, and thereby to protest indirectly against the white Americans’ behavior with the black Americans as though they were second-class citizens of America. The persona speaks; it symbolizes the whole race of Negroes speaks.
Again, the persona says, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.” Here, the muddy bosom ‘of the Mississippi turning golden in the sunset functions as a symbol of the idea of emancipation of the black people from slavery in America. The muddy bosom of the river symbolizes the darkness and filth created by the evil of slavery, and its turning golden in the sunset symbolizes Abe Lincoln’s conception of the idea of the abolition of slavery, which will remove the darkness and change the color of the river’s mud from dark to golden. (Lincoln is said to have conceived the idea of the abolition of slavery from America while he was on his journey down the Mississippi towards New Orleans).
In the poem, “I, Too, Sing America”, the persona also symbolizes all black Americans who served as servants in the white Americans’ houses. The fact that they sent him to eat in the kitchen when visitors came symbolizes the unjust treatment by white Americans to the black Americans who were reduced to the condition of being servants. Again, the black servant’s reactions to. this maltreatment are also symbolical. He laughed, and ate well and grew strong. These actions symbolize the black people’s growing strong both physically and intellectually so that ultimately they will be able to be equal with the whites and sit at the same table with them. Langston Hughes uses symbols in most of his poems. His symbols are very effective for expressing his purpose. He is a great symbolist.