While Langston Hughes's poem “The Negro Mother” does not exhibit all of the characteristics of modernist poetry, it does display a few.
First, modernist poetry is often written in plain, everyday language. “The Negro Mother” fits this characteristic well. Look at the opening lines, for instance, “Children, I come back today / To tell you a story of the long dark way / That I had to climb...” (lines 1-3).
Yet, like other modern poems, this poem also exhibits some shifts in syntax (how words are put together into phrases and sentences) that are not found in normal speech. Where we would usually say, “I was due no safety, no love, and no respect,” the poet writes, “No safety, no love, no respect was I due” (line 14). This choice of syntax places emphasis on what the speaker is missing in her life as a slave.
In terms of form, “The Negro Mother” exhibits more rhyme and rhythm than most modernist poems, but it does lack a regular stanza structure, consisting as it does of three stanzas of varying lengths, defined mostly by shifts in theme.
One of the primary themes of modernist poetry is alienation, the disconnect between people and between people and the world. The speaker in the poem was cut off from the world when she was a slave. She worked in the fields, was never taught to read and write, and “had nothing” to call her own (line 22). She was also cut off from her loved ones. Her children were sold away as was her husband, leaving her all alone with only her hope and her dreams to sustain her.
Indeed, Hughes, like other modernist poets, does not hesitate to deal with unpleasant topics and ideas. He shows slavery in all its painful, family-destroying horror in this poem. “Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair,” the speaker urges. “Remember my years, heavy with sorrow...” (lines 34-35). Yet, unlike other modernist poets, Hughes refuses to be completely pessimistic. His interest in the problems and politics of his time (another modern characteristic) allows him to write a poem of encouragement for his fellow African Americans. Through the words of the mother, he tells them to remember the past but to move forward bravely into the future, not allowing anyone to deny them their rights but at the same time striving for what is morally right.