For anyone with any knowledge of American history, the title of this poem alone, The Negro Mother, evokes emotion. The African American slaves lived through the worst brutality known to have taken place on American soil. The Negro Mother, although written by Langston Hughes, a man, comes to readers through the voice of a woman and a former slave. She writes to her children, challenging them to pick up the torch and to carry it on, fighting for freedom and equality. Her words paint the image of a strong and passionate black woman who has been abused and mistreated, but who has not succumbed to oppression but has risen above it with a passion in her heart and a song in her mouth. These are the words she wants every black child in America to take to heart.
The Negro Mother Analysis
Children, I come back today
In order that the race might live and grow.
The speaker immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which you can read in full here. The readers know that she is going to take them way back and tell them a story from times past. The rhyme scheme (AABB) creates the rhythm that causes the readers to feel almost as if the speaker is reading a nursery rhyme to them. However, the words reveal that this will not be nursery rhyme material, but the “story of the long dark way”. The speaker reveals that this is not a pleasant story, but one that needs to be told all the same.
These lines gives the readers the image of the one speaking. The picture of a face “dark as the night” gives the first image of the speaker. Then, it would seem that her face shines with the sweat of her work. But it is not only her sweat that makes her face shine. It is the joy and the love in her heart that shines through in her face like “love’s true light”.
In lines 7-8, the speaker compares herself to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. In the book of Exodus, in the Old Testament, the Egyptians had held the Hebrew people in slavery for generations until God called Moses to perform miraculous signs and wonders, sending plagues on the Egyptian people until they finally agreed to let the Hebrew people go free. At this point, God leads them to the Red Sea, and when the Egyptian army is coming upon them, the people see no way of escape until God parts the sea and allows the Hebrew people to walk through on dry land. This speaker identifies with the Hebrew people. She claims the she has crossed her own red sea. Then, she lets us know that she crossed that sea carrying the life of another human being. That unborn child she calls, “the seed of the free”.
Here, the speaker simply identifies herself as a slave woman.
In a few simple lines, she speaks of the most awful horrors of slavery. Though she labored day in and day out, she was only beaten and mistreated. But that is not the worst of it. She had her own children sold away from her, and her husband, too. This is the most heart-breaking truth about American slavery, that families were torn apart, that mothers mourned the loss of their children, and that marriages were broken.
No safety , no love, no respect was I due.
This line stands alone, and it speaks volumes. She claims that she was due no safety, no love, and no respect. This is how she was seen in eyes of the slave owners of the south. She was not thought worthy of basic human rights.
Here, she claims that she represents every slave woman. She alludes, again, to the book of Exodus, and she names three hundred years as her time spent in the deepest South. But she has found hope during those years of slavery, just as the Hebrew people found hope in God though they were bound by the Egyptians. She claims, “Go put a song and a prayer in my mouth”. Somehow, in the midst of her the most severe of suffering, she is able to sing.
God put a dream like steel in my soul.
This dream that is in her soul is not her own dream. She believes that God Himself put the dream there in her soul. The dream is “like steel” because no amount of persecution or oppression could move it.
Now, through my children, I’m reaching the goal.
There is a sudden shift in the story. She was speaking of her days of slavery, but now she seems to be on the verge of “reaching the goal”. This also gives the reader the notion that while she is working as a slave, she is also working for her freedom. The speaker, then, must somehow be able to work toward the freedom of the African American people.
The speaker knows that she will experience freedom through watching her children “young and free”. That is the blessing she seeks.
After telling the readers that she has almost reached her goal, she goes back to descriptions of her years of slavery and reminds them that she did not have anything, not even the slightest bit of education. She couldn’t read or write. She shed many tears and she continued to press on “through the lonely years”.
Here, she describes why she pressed on and why she continued to work. She knew that freedom of the black slaves was on the horizon, and carrying a child, she knew that she had to see it through so that one day she might be able to watch her child enjoy freedom.
This was “the dream that nothing could smother”: that one day the child growing within her would have freedom.
The speaker begins this stanza by speaking to the child within her womb and ends it by speaking to all “dark children in the world”. She asks them to remember the days of slavery. She asks them to remember her sweat, her pain, and her despair. She does not ask them to remember idly. She gives them a reason for recalling all the horrors of slavery. She asks the children to “make of those years a torch for tomorrow”. She means for her children and for all the black children to fight for equality, and to pick up the torch and carry it on when she no longer can.
These lines contribute to the idea that this speaker was somehow working for freedom. Whether that work was something done as a part of a group or working with abolitionists, or whether that was the work of prayer in beseeching God for her freedom, she does not specify. But one way or another, she believes that she was actively working toward the freedom that was about to occur for her people.
These stanzas are each their own line, and it reads with strength and power. She is calling out to the black children to carry on what her generation started. She asks them to “lift high” the banner, and to “stand like free men”. She asks them to stand up for with is right and not to let anyone put them down. Then, she asks them to “remember the whip and the slaver’s track”. She does not want the free children to forget about slavery. She wants them to remember where they came from and to press on for freedom and equality. She calls them to live a life of freedom, allowing none to oppress them. This is her dream.
The speaker asks the children to remember the ways in which the strong in society “still bar [them] the way” and “deny [them] life” and she calls them to keep marching forward, “breaking down bars” and fighting for their right for basic human rights.
Look ever upward at the sun and the stars.
This is an important line, because the speaker means to remind the children where to look while they are fighting for their freedom. In the first few lines of The Negro Mother, the speaker revealed that she had joy in her face and a song in her mouth because she looked to the heavens. She looked to God, and He gave her joy and a song even in the midst of great pain and suffering. The speaker reminds the children not to forget about God while they fight for their equal rights.
With this stanza, the speaker promises that she will be with the children in spirit throughout the years as they continue to fight for their equal rights. She promises that she will stay with them until the end of the fight, until “no white brother dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother.” It is interesting how, after all the oppression she has suffered at the hands of white people, she still calls him the “white brother”. In her poem, she never calls for revenge. She never asks her children to make amends for the pain that she has suffered at the hands of the white people of the South. Rather, she calls him the “white brother”, but asks her children to keep fighting for their rights until no white person anywhere would dare to keep them down.
Langston Hughes Background
Langston Hughes was one of the most well known poets of the Harlem Renaissance. This was a unique time period in history. The slaves had been freed for over sixty years, and yet they were still separate from white society. The voice of the mother in this poem is one who had experienced slavery first hand. The Harlem Renaissance was at such a time that many older black men and women had been slaves themselves, yet they were able to see their children and grandchildren excel as writers, musicians, and actors as well as in many other fields. Still, however, there was separation of the races, and those in white society often still refused to acknowledge to accomplishments and talents of their African American counterparts. So, The Negro Mother was written in the very unique time period in which African Americans who had known slavery first hand, and those who had never experienced it, existed together. This poem is very fitting for the time period, as the mother who had known slavery gives instructions to her free children to never forget, but to press on toward freedom and quality.