Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Mother and Son: Interwoven Voices

Through James's narrative technique of weaving his own life story in and out of his mother's story allows us to learn about the lives of mother and son in the context of both stories. James also parallels the story of his mother's young adulthood with the story of his own young adulthood, manipulating time so that we can compare Ruth and James at similar ages. This also allows us to see how Ruth's approach to parenting differs from her parents' approach. We can see exactly how Ruth determined to be different from her parents, and which of her parents' ways she found valuable and worth repeating.

Alienation Versus Solidarity

Ruth experienced several brands of alienation while living in Suffolk. First, she felt alienated from her family and her religion. Her town and classmates also alienated her, since she was not accepted socially. After her separation from her family, which was final and heartbreaking, Ruth was alienated from them in an exaggerated way: she was "dead" to them. Ruth experienced prejudice and hardship in New York as well, but there she had a sense of solidarity with the black communities of Harlem where she and Dennis lived. Her daily interactions with her community members, as well as with her parish members, allowed Ruth to feel like part of a group in a way she never had before, although she remained an essentially private person. Ruth recalls the kindness her neighbors and friends expressed when her first husband, Dennis, died. Not only did they prepare dinners for her and her family, they were generous with sharing clothing and money to try to help Ruth in supporting her children.

Journalistic Tone Versus the Emotion of Experience

James is on an emotional journey of self discovery, but he also uses the tools he has acquired as a journalist to investigate his mother's past. However, he leaves objectivity aside when her story relates particularly closely to him. At times, we sense his attempt to impose logic or objectivity on to a situation, only to be surprised by the intensity of his feeling. This is particularly the case in the series of interviews James holds with his mother. James explains in one of the last chapters of the book that he had planned a very specific process for these interviews with her. When she deviated from that agenda, though, he was swept up into her stories and history. This tension between objectivity and emotion exists throughout the memoir.