Langston Hughes – Mother to Son

Mother to Son

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—

Bare.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t get down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.


Langston Hughes uses the speaking voice of an African American mother, giving her son a lesson of survival and surpassing obstacles and barriers in his poem “Mother to Son”. His speaking voice, the mother, personifies a broken and rickety staircase as the difficulties that one has to face in life. She presents this to her son, conveying an ethical message as to what life consists of and how to not give up hope, just because he finds it ‘kinder harder’ to walk up the staircase of life.

The mother portrays life as no ‘crystal stair’, immediately presenting how life will never be something easy to cross – something that is not riddled with hardships and turning points. She begins the poem by acknowledging her son, using a solemn tone to express the authenticity of her monologue. She uses wood related metaphors to articulate the rough course of life, symbolizing ‘tacks’, ‘splinters’ and torn up ‘boards’ as a representation of the obstacles that life introduces in various forms, just to make it seemingly tedious and discouraging enough for one to give up. However, even without carpeted ‘floor(s)’, the speaker admits that she still has been climbing the staircase of life. This also speaks directly to the underprivileged group in society, the people who had to pass through ‘tacks’ ‘splinters’ and so many other hardships. It also provides a contrast between two social groups – the underprivileged and the privileged who have their lives as crystal stairs and carpeted floors.

However, the mother professes that even though she had her times of low, she has only come out strong. Her life hasn’t been smooth or without problems that might have made losing hope a valid option, yet she refused to acknowledge failure. The mother asks him to not give up, because she hasn’t; the confrontation of an obstacle must not discourage him to continue his journey up the stairs to where life leads him to be. The mother confesses that she’s still climbing the stairs of life, and facing all the problems and getting through them all, just to reach the top. This presents the perpetual manner of hardships faced during our time in this life and how sometimes we might have a few tacks and splinters stuck in our feet while reaching for the top of the staircase and we will feel like giving in to defeat but we have to remember that we will have a crystal stair when we reach the top. And maybe we won’t and the crystal stairs will come after, creating an entire cycle with a rickety and broken staircase and a crystal and clear staircase – presenting all the ups and lows of life.

The mother is also used to provide the voice of a fighter, in strong dialect establishing the identity, the pride in the battling self. Langston also uses a free verse with unequal lengths of lines – contributing to the element of a down earthed attitude towards life and to also produce a raw and brave take on the impediments produced by life. Langston encourages readers to go about their lives, encountering and defeating obstacles, and most importantly, not giving up.

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