‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes was first published in December of 1922 in the magazine, Crisis. It was also included in Hughes’ collection, The Weary Blues, published four years later. ‘Mother to Son’ is a twenty line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. Hughes composed the text in free verse. This means that there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. That does not mean that the word choices are unimportant. In fact, they are lyrical in nature.
Explore Mother to Son
Langston Hughes has chosen to use anaphora, the repetition of words at the beginning of lines, as well as just a general repetition of words throughout the poem. Anaphora is clearest in lines 4-6 and 10-12, these lines all begin with “And.” They also build off one another, leading up to moving and poignant statements that say something about the difficulties ahead for the son.
A reader should also take note of Hughes dialectic choices. He uses shortened versions of words such as “reachin’” rather than “reaching,” and “landin’s” rather than “landings.” This has the effect of making the verses more song-like. It also speaks to the narrator’s own background and might lead one to assume this person is uneducated. She is a working-class woman who is speaking frankly and on her own terms.
Images and Themes
One of the most important images of this piece is that of the crystal stair. Hughes uses the staircase as an extended metaphor to represent the hardships that life presents. His speaker describes how the staircase is not “crystal.” It is instead dangerous, torn up, and covered in “tacks” and “splinters.” She also speaks on the way the staircase turns and the “landings” one eventually reaches along the way.
In regards to the theme, a reader can interpret the poem as speaking on the importance of experience and determination. As stated above, the speaker is a woman who is addressing her son. She is attempting to explain to him, through the image of the staircase, what his life is going to be like. No matter how dark or dangerous the stairs get, one must continue “climbin’,” as the mother is.
It is also important to consider the historical context around this piece. Hughes was an important member of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote extensively on the oppression and racism that Black Americans face. With this in mind, the speaker can be seen as a generalized image of an African American mother who wants to explain the troubles her black son is going to face as he ages.
Summary of Mother to Son
The poem contains a mother’s warning to her son about the stairs one is forced to climb throughout life. He must watch out for broken boards, splinters, and tacks. These things are there in order to throw him off. Additionally, she explains that although he might get exhausted or desperate, he is never to turn around or sit down. She is still trudging up the stairs and he can too.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Mother to Son
In the first section of lines Hughes begins with the speaker addressing her son. The first words “Well, son, I’ll tell you:” sets up the conversation as informal but also important. She clearly has something she needs to tell him and it isn’t going to be easy. The main thing that the mother wants to tell her son is that,
Life for [her hasn’t] been no crystal stair.
She is contrasting her own life against one that is easy to progress through (or up). In her case, moving forward represents a staircase with “tacks” and “splinters” protruding from the wood. The wood is also torn up in places, entire boards missing. It is dangerous to live her life, and more often than not each step presents something new to fear.
The fact that boards are missing from the staircase speaks to the lack of support she received or to the missing links in her own understanding of what she should do next. The last lines add to the already painful and at times scary, staircase she has described. Of the boards that do remain on the stairs, and the landings she will come to in the next lines, some of those do not have “carpet.” Again, she is describing the poor conditions she has had to deal with and what a struggle it has been, and still is, for her to live.
Despite all of the things mentioned in the first seven lines the speaker is still moving forward. She wants to make sure that above all else this is the lesson her son learns. “All the time” she has been struggling she has also been “a-climbin’ on” up the metaphorical stairs of her life.
To describe the different periods of her life she inserts landings into the staircase. These are place the stairs might take a turn or she might be able to rest. Whenever she reached these “landin’s” she went ahead and turned the corner. The speaker was not afraid of what might be on the other side, even when she was entering into the “dark.” This is another character trait she is hoping to pass on to her son. Even though she knows how bad things can be, she is unafraid, or at least strong enough, to face them.
Not only are the places she is forced to go dark, there has never been any light there. This means that either she is the first one there, or one of many who have seen the same darkened corridors of life.
In the final stanza of ‘Mother to Son’ the speaker directly addresses her son again. She uses the word “boy” to call his attention and make sure he is still listening to her. The mother tells her son that no matter what he might be going through, now or in the future, he cannot “turn back.” There is nothing down the stairs that will help one make it past an obstacle ahead.
She also tells him not to “set down on the steps.” Any hesitation or fear will only make the situation worse. He needs to persevere, especially past these most difficult parts. The speaker also warns her son against “fall[ing].” The stairs must be handled carefully as there are the broken boards, tacks and splinters to avoid. These obstacles, not of one’s own making, are only emphasized by those brought on by one’s choices. The staircase becomes more and more difficult depending on how one handles their own life.
In the last three lines the speaker reiterates that even though life is hard, she is still going. She is “still climbin’” through the hardships.