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.


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.

SOURCE: Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes; Arnold Rampersad, editor; David Roessel, associate editor (New York: Vintage Books, 1995); pp. 155-156.


A Personal Note

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


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