Mother to Son by Langston Hughes

In this study guide, you will closely read Langston Hughes’ simple poem, Mother to Son.  You will take notes and have various opportunities to debate the subject with your classmates. You will demonstrate your comprehension in an informational essay in which you will explore Hugh’s use of metaphors and how it relates to your understanding of the poem’s theme.

Introduction

Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes is a poem about a mother’s struggle. The poem also contains the mother’s advice to her son on how to survive in this world, even if it is unkind to him. The struggle is described in each line of “Mother to Son.”The poem  is one of three poems of The Weary Blues – Hughes’ first poetry collection. He penned it when he was only 21 years old. Hughes employs the vernacular of the uneducated African-American, but as Baxter Miller observes, he “shows how dialect can be used with dignity.”

As implied by the title, a mother is speaking and her son. Critics such as Baxter Miller and Aidan Wasley, on the other hand, regard it as a dramatic monologue. As with the previous two poems, the speaker of this poem is a representative character, an Afro-American woman/mother who has overcome significant obstacles in life. The poem demonstrates the woman’s (and Hughes’, as well) optimism and acceptance of the truth that life is a struggle and that one should not give up on life despite its hardships. Hughes conveys this point with a remarkable metaphor that recurs throughout the poem.

Summary of Mother to Son

Langston Hughes was a well-known poet and activist of the twentieth century. One of the most prominent themes in his work was advocating for the strength of black people. In the poem “Mother to Son,” the narrator uses the power of a mother’s voice to express her strength, struggle, and impact as a black woman.

The poem begins with a message from a mother to her son. The son is a fictitious listener rather than an actual one. The poem becomes a theatrical monologue as a result of this imagined listener/audience. She explains to her son that life was not simple for her (as an African-American lady); it was not a crystal stair with firm, smooth steps. Throughout her life, she had to step over sharp nails, broken and pointed objects that were scattered on the stairwell. She is referring to the fact that she had to endure situations that pierced her heart and caused her pain in the same way that sharp objects do. Similarly, her walk was occasionally risky due to the damaged steps on the stairs. She was forced to pause and consider her options, and her barefooted stroll on the rocky steps (“with no carpet”) just added to her misery and suffering.

After recounting these traumatic occurrences, the mother discusses how she dealt with them. She claims they were powerless to prevent her from ascending the steps (“I’se been a-climbin’ on”), that is, from progressing in life. There were landings for her, but there were also corners that appeared to obstruct her progress; there were times when she was completely without light (“And sometimes goin’ in the dark“), implying that she had lost all hope and the future lay black in front of her. However, she continued walking and had come thus far despite the obstacles in her path. After enduring a difficult life, she is capable of advising her son:

So, boy, don’t you turn back
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard

She is urging her son not to give up on life or to stop moving forward simply because it looks to be difficult. She inspires the son by setting an example: even after suffering so much over the years, her battle has not ended: she is still arduously ascending the last steps of her life: “And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

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Summary and Theme of “Mother to Son”

Langston Hughes was a well-known poet and activist of the twentieth century. One of the most prominent themes in his work was advocating for the strength of black people. In the poem “Mother to Son,” the narrator uses the power of a mother’s voice to express her strength, struggle, and impact as a black woman.

In the twentieth century, Langston Hughes was a notable poet and activist. A recurring theme in his work was his advocacy for and power of black people. The poem “Mother to Son” makes use of the strength, struggle, and influence of a mother’s voice to reflect the narrator’s strength, struggle, and influence as a black woman.

The poem is narrated by the mother to her son in the persona of a mother. The mother tries to counsel her son on how to overcome life’s problems using her personal experiences. The entire poem is replete with references to power. While she cannot improve her substantially impoverished financial status, she channels her meagre resources into her conviction and self-assurance. She does not portray herself as a victim of her circumstances; rather, she speaks to her son about her triumphs despite the difficulties she faced: “Life ain’t been no crystal stair for me; it is had tacks in it; and splinters; and board torn up; and places with no carpet on the floor-bare; but all the time; I’se been a-climbin’ on” (Hughes 2-8). The narrator’s tone and words portray strength and triumph in contrast to incapacity and defeat. Most importantly, the poem demonstrates Hughes’ attitude toward black women. He regards them as a formidable force with which to contend.

The poem portrays the woman as courageous and capable of conquering life’s hardships. The poet’s purpose is unmistakable to demonstrate that black women possess an unfathomable strength that enables them to achieve in life or, at the very least, to remain resilient. The poem’s narrator demonstrates the perseverance that has enabled her to reconstruct her life whenever she has encountered a setback: “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” (8-13). She recounts her toughness and resiliency. This demonstrates that the poet views black women as strong and robust. The poet employs analogies to convey the woman’s power and perseverance throughout the poem. For example, he utilises the metaphor of a staircase devoid of tacks to represent the narrator’s happy and terrible moments.

Moreover, the poem is mostly about struggle. The poem’s narrator contemplates her life’s struggles: “Well, son, I’ll tell you/ life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (1-2). These lines, which express the poem’s theme, reveal the mother’s daily struggles to inspire her son: “It had tacks in in/ and splinters/ and boards torn u/ and places with no carpet on the floor-bare”  (3-6). Despite these obstacles, the mother never gives up.

Furthermore, the poem substantiates the mother’s interpretation. Mother speaks, son listens. The poet makes it quite apparent that she believes that a black woman’s voice should be heard. The narrator speaks with passion, attempting to persuade her son to be as strong and resilient as she was in the face of life’s trials. Her voice is enticing and persuasive. She makes her message succinctly through the use of short sentences. After recounting her own life, she tries to persuade her son to take a similar path:

So boy, don’t you turn back/don’t you set down on the steps/cause you find it’s kinder hard/don’t you fall now; for I’se still goin’ honey/ I’se still climbin’” (14-19).

Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” expresses his feelings about black women. He regarded them as strong, resilient, and powerful women. The woman in the poem utilises her voice to recount her own hardships and to encourage her son to overcome them. The poem demonstrates the strength and influence of black women’s voices.

Analysis of Mother to Son

Mother to Son” is a dramatic monologue that takes its audience on a journey through multiple levels of significance. Its form and content appear straightforward, yet it has a message for everyone and likely sheds light on Hughes’ concerns about his future career as a young Afro-American.

We have no idea why the African-American woman is telling her son about her difficulties. Perhaps the son requested that she describe them to him, or he must have expressed frustration with life at the time. Thus, the mother begins, “Well, son, I will tell you,” and begins her account of her trials and tribulations. For her, life was not a crystal stair, she repeats.

Hughes was only beginning his career as a poet when he penned this poem, and he was also an educated guy. As a result, he may not speak English in the manner in which the mother does in the poem. Then why does he choose an elderly (AfricanAmerican) woman to be his narrator? According to Aidan Wasley, “we can see the speaker of ‘Mother to Son’ as a kind of collective voice, the voice of generations of African – Americans whose troubled history… ‘‘ain’t been no crystal stair.’

That is, by describing her personal experience of hardship, the speaker-mother is narrating the storey of her people, beginning in their homelands and continuing in America (“And life for me am not been no crystal stair”). African-Americans were forced to walk over tacks, splinters, and broken planks, among other hazards. They were forced to live in filthy tenement buildings and struggle against poverty in the United States. Nevertheless, the mother and thousands of others ascended their treacherous stairwells. Their future, she tells her son and, by extension, countless other young African-Americans, is contingent upon their resolve to strive; they should not “set down on the steps” and accept defeat. Since they must still climb, they require inspiration from their traditional spiritual, “We shall overcome someday.” It is entirely appropriate for the poem’s readers to follow the mother’s advice in this instance.


Hughes has done an excellent job of embedding the woman’s storey within a defining image—the crystal stair. Wasley compares this step to the stairway/ladder envisioned in a dream by Jacob, the Old Testament patriarch. Jacob was forced to flee his home to his uncle’s to avoid the wrath of his tricked brother, Esau. Jacob arrived at a location in the evening and slept there, using a stone as a cushion. He had a dream while sleeping in which he saw a stairway/ladder with its foot on the ground and its apex touching heaven. Additionally, he noticed God’s angels ascending and descending the stairwell. “I am the Lord, the God… I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying,” God said from the top. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, spread out” in all four directions (This episode in Jacob’s life is related in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 28 and verses 10–15).

How is this episode in Jacob’s life connected to the poetry we are currently studying? The Israelites are Jacob’s descendants (Jews). They were forced to become captives in Egypt, where the Pharaohs enslaved them for generations. While they endured hardship in Egypt, they were constantly yearning for the country that God had promised Jacob. When African-Americans toiled on Southern plantations before the Civil War, this narrative of Jacob was extremely popular. They, like the Israelites, desired liberty and peaceful existence in the promised land of America. As Wasley notes, “The heavenly stairway became a powerful image of liberation and salvation, attainable only through suffering and faith in God.” Hughes, Wasley speculates, may “have been very familiar with the associations of Jacob’s ladder with the struggle for freedom and equality of blacks in America..” Notably, one of their most well-known traditional spiritual songs is “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” The hymn “speaks of climbing ‘higher and higher’ in order to become ‘soldiers of the Lord,’ and it also encourages the singers to “Keep on climbing, we will make it.” It concludes with the statement, “Children, do you want your liberty?” In light of these elements, the poem’s mother gains greater significance. She is a wise woman who advises her people, who are spread over Northern America, to continue climbing and avoid sitting on the steps. Thus, the picture of the crystal stair invokes “simultaneously the painful history of blacks in America while pointing to the tradition of faith and hope that has sustained them through it all.”

As indicated above, we can match the poet’s son with the son in the poem. Hughes wrote this poem while he was a very young poet attempting to establish the foundations of his craft. He might have been debating whether to write about his own people in America, their difficulties and yearning for total freedom or to disregard his African ancestors. These were not easy problems to solve, and when we read “Mother to Son” with these issues in mind, we discover that “the poem suggests that the son’s frustration and despair is that of the poet, [who is]faced with the impossible task of writing poetry that truly speaks to and for the African-American experience.” The poem’s mother’s urging subsequently takes on a new degree of significance. Hughes is instructed as an African-American poet to embrace his identity and sing about his race’s history, leaning heavily on their creative forms—spirituals, blues, jazz, and so on. Additionally, see how the mother’s suggestion is appropriate for resolving the poet’s dilemma: “So, boy, don’t you turn back/ Don’t you set down on the steps/’Cause you find it’s kinder hard.”  She is well aware that his mission is difficult, and that his poetry cannot be about a gleaming crystal stair.

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Again, in a broad sense, we might define the son as someone weary of life’s difficulties. The mother’s advice to him/her is not to accept defeat but to persevere in the face of adversity.

As with “Young Gal’s Blues,” this poem has elements of African American dialect. This truth is illustrated by words and idioms such as ain’t a-climbin’, reachin’, set down, kinder, I’se, etc. Additionally, they emphasise the mother’s lack of education and her son’s educational disparity. The blues’ influence is clearly obvious. As a result, the poem features heavy rhythmic beats, repeated phrases, and narration of African-Americans’ tragic struggles. Hughes notes that “Unlike the Spirituals, the Blues are not group songs . . . they are usually sung by one man or one woman alone.” He continues, “the Blues are songs about being in the midst of trouble, friendless, hungry, disappointed in love, right here on earth.” This poem is likewise sung by a female performer and discusses adversity and unfavourable conditions.

Questions and Answers

Q.1) What features of the dramatic monologue do you find in the poem?
Answers to the questions on “Mother to Son”
Answer: A dramatic monologue appears as though there is a speaker and a listener or listeners, but there is no real listener. The speaker’s words in the poem generally reveal his/her character and temperament. In Hughes’ poem, the son is only supposedly there and hence does not respond to his mother. So he is an imaginary presence. Also, the woman’s words clearly reveal the resilience of her character.


Q.2) Comment on the significance of the crystal stair as a metaphor in the poem.
Answer: The entire poem revolves around the metaphor of the crystal stair; we find its presence throughout the poem. It signifies life’s progress, the hardships life brings and the need to climb up, rather than climb down, in the face of adversities.

Q.3) Is this a poem of hope?
Answer: Surely, this is a poem of hope. It enables one to keep hope about the future even as one meets with adverse experiences in life.

Note: More questions will be added soon.

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