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The Negro Mother – Langston Hughes

July 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

 The Negro Mother – by Langston Hughes


Children, I come back today
To tell you a story of the long dark way
That I had to climb, that I had to know
In order that the race might live and grow.
Look at my face—dark as the night—
Yet shining like the sun with love’s true light.
I am the child they stole from the sand
Three hundred years ago in Africa’s land.
I am the dark girl who crossed the wide sea
Carrying in my body the seed of the free.
I am the woman who worked in the field
Bringing the cotton and the corn to yield.
I am the one who labored as a slave,
Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave—
Children sold away from me, husband sold, too.
No safety, no love, no respect was I due.
Three hundred years in the deepest South:
But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth.
God put a dream like steel in my soul.
Now, through my children, I’m reaching the goal.
Now, through my children, young and free,
I realize the blessings denied to me.
I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write.
I had nothing, back there in the night.
Sometimes, the valley was filled with tears,
But I kept trudging on through the lonely years.
Sometimes, the road was hot with sun,
But I had to keep on till my work was done:
I had to keep on! No stopping for me—
I was the seed of the coming Free.
I nourished the dream that nothing could smother
Deep in my breast—the Negro mother.
I had only hope then, but now through you,
Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true:
All you dark children in the world out there,
Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair.
Remember my years, heavy with sorrow—
And make of those years a torch for tomorrow.
Make of my past a road to the light
Out of the darkness, the ignorance, the night.
Lift high my banner out of the dust.
Stand like free men supporting my trust.
Believe in the right, let none push you back.
Remember the whip and the slaver’s track.
Remember how the strong in struggle and strife
Still bar you the way, and deny you life—
But march ever forward, breaking down bars.
Look ever upward at the sun and the stars.
Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers
Impel you forever up the great stairs—
For I will be with you till no white brother
Dares keep down the children of the Negro mother.

Blacks, Slavery or slaves, Activism

A Personal Note by Ralph Dumain

In memoriam, on the 21st anniversary of our beginning, dedicated to Evelyn, who grew up with the work of Langston Hughes and carried on the noble legacy of ‘The Negro Mother’ Langston Hughes may be the first black poet I ever encountered—not through reading, but by hearing his words—this poem. I was in high school at the height of the Black Power era, which meant being subjected to a number of school assemblies dominated by Black Power rhetoric and other events of a racial nature which I can scarcely remember, most of which I found less than inspiring. There are a few memories which stand out, however, and certain moments lodged themselves forever in my consciousness. One of these occasions was a black oratory contest, with one group of three young men and another group of three young ladies competing. I remember two of the three speeches by the males. One was the opening soliloquy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The material itself greatly impressed me, I could immediately relate to it, so I’m guessing this was my favorite. The third contestant delivered Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. I don’t remember being overly impressed with this young man’s performance, but he won the male contest, perhaps because King had recently been assassinated. Then it was the girls’ turn to deliver their orations. I cannot remember anything about the two other contestants, but whatever I was thinking throughout this assembly, everything changed when I heard this one girl belt out Langston Hughes’ ‘The Negro Mother’. I snapped to attention. My heart pounded as the declamation of the poem built to a crescendo. I did not retain the preceding verses, but the final line, which I never forgot, burned right into me—when that girl righteously thundered her preachment of that moment when nobody ‘Dares keep down the children of the Negro mother!’ I was electrified. Yes! Yes! That’s right!

I no longer know when I took the trouble to seek out this text. I cannot re-read it without being overcome by an intensity compounded through the decades. But that moment taught me about two things the rest of my life has borne out—the power of a black woman’s love, and the power to communicate.

Ralph Dumain
9 August 2006


“The Negro Mother” is the title poem in the collection of poetry that Hughes wrote to reach the masses of black people. The twenty-page book and the poem were such an instant success that Hughes told his friend Carl Van Vechten that in Birmingham, Alabama, the book “sold like reefers on 131st Street.”

The voice in the poem is that of the black mothers through the ages. In the opening line, the narrator addresses her children. In the narrative that follows, “the Negro mother” depicts the capture and hardship of black slaves and speaks of the will to endure that kept them going. The voice of the Negro mother urges the children to transform the future so that they may live in dignity and freedom from white oppression.

The poem, often referred to as a heritage poem, is highly lyrical, employing both a regular rhyme scheme (couplets) and meter. It was Hughes’s intention, he said, that the poems be pleasant to recite and easy to remember. “The Negro Mother” and the success of the volume show how keenly in tune Hughes was with his audience.

Note: There are numerous copies of this poem on the web, almost all clones of one erroneous text. I could only find one accurate online rendition of this poem, after checking with a printed edition. Beware: this is what the loss of print culture can do to you, and by all means, purchase this book for your collection.



This poem was often a source of inspiration and can still bring me to tears.

28 responses to The Negro Mother – Langston Hughes

  1. My thought upon reading this was: what a curse race is. Then I thought of its beauty.
    I am sorry for what we did to you and yours.

  2. Oi! I’ve posted and invite you to read and comment. Because I like you. You may even say things that you think I won’t like…

  3. Hi J – I didn’t quite get what you meant on Newsy’s blog about the scalping. Anyway, ONE DEATH is one death too many FOR ANY RACE! What I was trying to put across is that people are STILL TO THIS DAY wanting the white tribe to get on their knees and apologize to the darker tribe.

    May I ask – what MORE must a white person do? The country and Africa for that matter is owned and run by black people. The rest of Africa since the early 1960s and this beloved lil’ ol’ land for seventeen years.

    You keep wanting white people to apologize is their NOTHING GOOD that any white person has done for South Africa? Nothing?

    Come now, please, no one is saying that apartheid or any other regime is right but this apologizing by the whites is getting a little bit out of hand.

  4. Welcome here Chillibean:)

    Scalping? Oh yes! It is just that I was teaching in Arabia with a girl of Indian descent and somebody remarked about the Indians scalping the whites and she then reminded everybody that the Indians did not in fact first do the scalping. They were scalped for their hair
    and later they retaliated by taking on the habit too!

    Personally I do not ask any white people to get down on their knees. I would be very embarrassed if anyone that offended me got down on their knees to me!

    I do say let us be honest about our past and that part of that honesty is to not mix the present in with it, but let us be honest and then determining that we now have a joint problem to resolve, get around to ways of resolution.

    However, these seem to be tough asks…

    Still, it is when someone can come back and say…’what did you mean?’ as you have done that hope really burns high in me:))

  5. Hi O,G:) Been out all day… will visit later:))

  6. Hello Twaksak:)) Lekker naam jong!

  7. I love you O,G:))

  8. There are many forms of of prejudice, but one thing a white person has never experienced – not really, is vilification soley because of the colour of his skin.
    I sincerely hope it never happens;but this is why a white person will never truely understand.

  9. Ark:) You are a Stirring Saint:))

  10. :)
    Good Morning PPD…

    Yes, sad but powerful and filled with appreciation of the day and hope for tomorrow:))

  11. Thanks.

  12. *Shrugs* It is what it is.

  13. Quote you: “There are many forms of of prejudice, but one thing a white person has never experienced – not really, is vilification soley because of the colour of his skin.”

    My dear friend, which country are you living in? Whites are currently being vilified the whole time because of their skin colour! Just read the media.

  14. Honest about my past, and that of my ancestors? We’ve never hurt a black, Indian or Chinese person ever! But our character is being attacked along with everyone else’s? Why? And why leave the present out of it – are you by any chance implying that there are unfairnesses happening against young whites who’ve never done anything wrong, by people who are not white? Or else why leave the present out?

    Sometimes your politics are hard to swallow. All we want, all our parents wanted, is peace and freedom for all. Wars are engineered by politicians. Racial hatred in SA is currently a construct being fanned by the likes of Malema, because he can’t come up with real economic solutions and isn’t interested either. Instead of improving education teachers strike and vandalize. How can a country grow in such a climate?

  15. This is a brilliant poem, anyhows. Learned recently about that American woman who led her people to freedom – the first black slave woman to escape and start her own movement of rebellion.

    Oppression is the story of humankind. Wherever you look, go back in history and you’ll find cruelty and oppression, usually of the weaker by the stronger. There is no race that’s innocent of it. We’re not that far removed from our closest primate relatives, are we. I say, let the women lead: We don’t make wars for profit. We remember that every man is some woman’s son.

  16. TRUE!
    This is why we must have women in politics and in decision-making and it is a problem that the Western Cape finds many reasons to keep women out!

  17. kalinka:)) NO, ‘not really’ as Ark said because the ‘vilification’ that you refer to (and I am not speaking to farm murders where we never hear about the black workers also killed) is not strictly because of white skin but reform and socio-economic attempts at the consequences of bias against black skins.

    Even the white poets wrote about the joy of killing Hottentots for Sunday Afternoon Sports over coffee on the stoep-
    which we know formed part of the KhoiSan genocide
    so let us not go there…

    because there is also still the Hottentotswors which no one wants to talk about.

  18. The present kalinka as past 1994 is a new discussion.
    It is not out of bounds but it is a new book.
    If people (white people) want to talk about the past then let us talk about the past and not mix it up with current affairs and use current affairs to justify the past and call for support for white army camps and the creation of new white killing machines in opposition to socio-economic- political transformation.
    It is to cover this Witwolf / AWB stuff that every crime perceived to be against whites by blacks receive so much media
    The will to take this country for white people and to stick blacks into some corner is alive and well
    and the struggle to make any reform work is largely doomed to failure while the economy is in white hands
    because economy rules

    None of this excuses any tomfoolery and deceit by the ANC representatives in government or by the ANC. I am saying that THIS is another discussion.

    It is one that I have blogged about a few times (as you know) and which I will blog about again

    but kalinka
    to reduce what happened to me and mine purely because of the colour of our skins
    to a debate of what is perceived to happen to whites today
    is an insult and a reductionism that know no bounds
    and that are meant to rub in how my humanity remains lesser
    and I do not accept any of it as normal
    because it is a strategy against blacks which too many well meaning whites buy into.

  19. @Kalinka
    You are correct. My word usage is wrong – or at least not strictly accurate;as a writer I should have been more careful.
    Maybe I should have written;
    ‘…subject to the dehumanisation the ‘black’ man has suffered over the years.’
    What’s happening now is primarily as a result of what has gone before.
    Payback is often a bitch..

  20. Women leaders?
    Er… didn’t Margaret Thatcher go to war? Over a few ‘sheep’, if I’m not mistaken.

  21. The Iron Lady; the Man-Woman:))

    Ah; but we must always remember the paternalistic socialization of women and take great care in which women are promoted and supported to decision-making positions:)

    Helen would be an example of a man-woman:))

  22. It has become fashionable to debunk Maggie, shrieking to the skies all she did wrong, and entirely ignoring the much she did right.

  23. If only poems of this power were entering the arena which propagated complete equality and sought to show up the utter valuelessness of ‘cultural’ barriers which continue to create a void. There is a stage when dwelling on the bitternesses of the past becomes a barrier to moving forward.

  24. True:) This poem however does not stagnate in the past. It is indeed a staircase to climb:)

  25. :)True too… but I still do not appreciate the war!

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