‘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. This piece is one of his most popular and relatable. Readers of all backgrounds can come to this poem and feel themselves either in the shoes of the child or the mother, or perhaps both. It’s a very emotional piece, one that is meant to a reminder of life’s hardships and an inspiration for the strength needed to persevere through them.
Explore 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 get too.
You can read the full poem here.
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 of 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.
Structure and Form
‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes 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. This can be seen through Hughes’ thoughtful selection of words that reflect a specific dialect and examples of half-rhyme throughout the text.
Langston Hughes has chosen to use anaphora, dialect, and imagery, as well as other literary devices in ‘Mother to Son.’ Anaphora is 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’s 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.
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.
Analysis of Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
And places with no carpet on the floor—
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.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
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 places 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, but there has also 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.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
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 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.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Mother to Son’ should also consider reading some of Hughes’ other best-known poems. These include ‘Dreams,’ ‘I, Too, Sing America,‘ and ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ In the latter, Hughes utilizes a speaker who describes the history of the world through what he’s seen alongside rivers. It is one of Hughes’ best-loved poems. in ‘I, Too, Sing America,’ the speaker asserts his Americanism in the face of those who look down upon the Black population in the United States. He is equal among all people in his country. In ‘Dreams,’ Hughes highlights the value of dreams and how important it is to nurture them if one wants to “fly” above the rest of the world.