Mother to Son

Mother to Son

by Langston Hughes

Mother to Son Summary and Analysis

In Short

  • A mother narrates her own life journey to her son. She says that her life has not been so easy. It had so many ups and downs.
  • Despite all the challenges, she never turned back. She has kept climbing through landings, corners and darkness.
  • She asks the boy to follow her and keep moving forward without turning back or giving up. She inspires him by saying that she is still going steady despite life’s hardships.

Mother to Son – Line by line Explanation

Line 1 – 2

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It looks like the poem starts in the middle of a conversation. Someone is speaking to his/her son. Yes, we come to know from the title of the poem though that it is a mother who addresses her son to say something. She tells him that life has never been easy for her.

Hughes here develops a metaphor of a staircase. “Crystal stair” suggests smoothness. So, the mother’s life was never a smooth journey like a climb up a crystal staircase.

For the greater significance of the lines (and the whole poem, indeed), we have to know the context in which the poem was written. In the 1920s and 1930s there were plenty of literary and other artistic outputs on the Black (African American) life experience. And this movement, centred in Harlem, New York City, is known as Harlem Renaissance of which the poet Langston Hughes was a leading figure.

Understandably, our speaker, the mother here is a member of the African American community. She here expresses the hardships she has faced as a black woman in a racist society where white people enjoy power and privileges. The “crystal staircase” is a symbol of the comfort and ease with which the white people climb to their goal and how easily they can achieve success.

Line 3 – 7

It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.

The mother has faced many obstacles in the way of her journey. She explains that her staircase had sharp nails and splinters on it. The boards were fallen apart in some places. And at places the boards were bare and had no carpet on them. “Tacks”, “splinters”, “boards torn up” and “no carpet on the floor”— all represent struggles and difficulties she had to face in life.

The mother’s words are symbolic and suggests that her life’s journey has not been a luxurious one. She had to overcome many hindrances that could restrict her from moving forward.

Line 8 – 13

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.

Despite all the obstacles, the mother has not given up. She has been climbing up the metaphorical stairs of life. Whenever she has reached landings, she hasn’t stopped there to take rest. “Landin’s” here suggests different phases of life.

The mother has turned corners without fear. She has not been afraid going through the darkness when there was no light. ‘Light’ is here a symbol of hope, positivity and guidance. She has kept climbing life’s staircase even when there was hopelessness and none to guide her.

In the above lines, we see the poet’s use of dialectic English in the mother’s lips drawn from the African American vernacular to portray a true picture of the black woman.

Line 14 – 16

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

The mother again addresses her son directly to call his attention. She asks him not to turn back. She advises him not to settle down with problems (set down on the steps). He should never lose hope and motivation to move forward in life.

He has to face bravely all the difficulties even though they might be tough on him. The adversities that come his way should not dampen his spirit and he must strive for a better life.

Line 17 – 20

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.

The mother warns her son against falling. The steps he might take are full of hurdles but he should be so careful that he doesn’t fall.

He should not be discouraged or misled by any obstacle on the way of life. The mother sets her own example to inspire her son. Despite all the troubles she has gone through, she has not stopped yet. She is still climbing. The mother’s address to the boy as ‘honey’ shows her love and attachment to her son.

The last line is a repetition of the second line of the poem and the mother reiterates that life has not been smooth and fair for her.

“Mother to Son” – Into Details

Publication

Written in the early 1920s, Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son” was first published in 1922 in “The Crisis”, a magazine devoted to promoting civil rights in the United States. Later it was included in Hughes’s book titled “The Weary Blues” published in 1926.

Background / Context

In the 1920s and 1930s there was a large number of literary and other artistic productions including arts, music, dance, theatre etc. on the black (African American) life experience. The main motif was to depict the struggles undergone by the black people of America during that time. And this literary and artistic movement, centred in Harlem, New York City, is known as Harlem Renaissance of which the poet Langston Hughes was an important member.

The present poem “Mother to Son” was written as a part of that movement. Here, the speaker can be seen as an Afro-American mother who expresses to her son the hardships she had to face and gives advice to him on how to survive in a racist society.

Setting

From the initial reading it would seem that “Mother to Son” is set on a staircase. But knowing the literary context in which it was written, we know that the poem is set in America in the 1920s. During that time racist laws in America restricted the lives of the black people in many ways like where they could live, work or roam about. The obstacles black people faced in achieving their life goals have found expression in this poem.

Title

There is nothing extraordinary in the title of the poem “Mother to Son”. It just suggests the content of the poem telling us that a mother is saying something, maybe giving some advice to her son. But the title plays an important role in revealing who the actual speaker is. Though the addresses of “son”, “boy” etc. indicate that the speaker might be a parent, without this title, we would still keep guessing. The title suggests that the speaker is a mother.

Form and language

The poem “Mother to Son” is written in the form of a dramatic monologue. The abrupt beginning, a speaker other than the poet, presence of a silent listener, and the revelation of the speaker’s character – all these characteristics make the poem a great dramatic monologue.

The poem is written in a single stanza consisting of twenty lines. The language is simple and lucid. Colloquial dialectic English is used in the mother’s lips drawn from the African American vernacular to depict a realistic picture of the black woman.

Meter and rhyme Scheme

The poem is written in free verse in which no particular meter or rhyme scheme is followed.

As a dramatic monologue, the poem is presented as words uttered by an Afro-American mother. To give her words a realistic sound and flow, it is difficult to maintain a rhyme scheme or a metrical pattern. That is why the poet rather chose to go with the free verse technique.

“Mother to Son” Themes

Racism

Racism is the main theme of the poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. The speaker represents a mother from the African American community. She presents her story of hardships and struggle she had to go through in a racist white society.

In an early 20th century America, racism was prevalent and white people framed laws in their favour in order to exercise endless power. But the life and movement of the black people were restricted in many ways. They found it hard and full of obstacles to achieve success where white people enjoyed a rather smooth journey towards their goal.

The mother warns her son beforehand against problems he is going to face in his climb up the metaphorical staircase of life being a member of the black community.

In its theme of racism, the poem is very similar to Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” where she portrays how the black people lived liked a caged bird in the American society of her time.

Hope, courage and Perseverance

The mother’s story has been a story of grit and perseverance too. She inspires her son with the example of her own life. She has never been afraid to move forward even through darkness and other hardships. She has always kept climbing the stairs. She urges her boy not to fall, not to give up and not to settle down, but to keep moving overcoming all obstacles like the way she did.

Mother as a role model

The mother in the poem plays a role model to her son. She informs him of the obstacles he is going to face, advises him not to give up and inspires him with her own example to keep moving forward. There cannot be a better role model than a parent like her.

“Mother to Son” Symbols

Staircase

The poet has used a staircase as an extended metaphor in the poem. The staircase here represents the way of life. It is the milestones one has to cross, the path one has to tread on in the journey towards success, to achieve one’s goal.

The expression “crystal stair” in the second and the last lines of the poem suggests smoothness of the journey by white people. Our speaker, the black mother had no such crystal stair, but hers was a rough and badly repaired staircase. It had loose nails and splinters on it and had no carpet in places. The mother had to climb up the stairs of her life with great difficulty, meeting dangers every now and then. Her journey of life has not been as easy as the white people in a racist society.

Darkness and light

In line 12 and 13, the words “dark” and “light” are used symbolically. The mother says that she kept climbing up the metaphorical staircase of life even through dark phases when there was no light.

Dark here symbolizes hopelessness and despair while light suggests hope, positivity and guidance. The mother went through some points of her life when there was no hope or guidance to push her forward, but still she kept moving with her power of determination.

“Mother to Son” Literary Devices

Enjambment

Though most lines of the poem are end-stopped lines, enjambment is used in line 8, 12 and 15 where a sentence continues to the next line of verse without pause.

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,

Alliteration

Alliteration is repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of nearby words. We find use of this device in the following lines –

So boy, don’t you turn back. (repetition of ‘b’ sound)
Don’t you set down on the steps (repetition of ‘d’ and ‘s’ sounds)
Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. (repetition of ‘k’ sound)

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words (no matter whether at the beginning, middle or end). Use of consonance is found randomly in the entire poem. Here are some good examples –

Well, son, I’ll tell you: (repetition of ‘l’ sound)
It’s had tacks in it, (repetition of ‘t’ sound)
I’se been a-climbin’ on, (repetition of ‘n’ sound)

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words. Here are some examples –

It’s had tacks in it, (repetition of ‘i’ and ‘a’ sounds))
And boards torn up, (repetition of ‘o’ sound
I’se been a-climbin’ on, (repetition of ‘i’ sound)

Anaphora

Anaphora is repetition of the same word or set of words in a paragraph. Here are the instances of anaphora from the poem –

The poet repeats ‘And’ in lines 4, 5 and 6 and once again in 10, 11 and 12 to highlight the endless sufferings of the mother and her perseverance respectively.

And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—

And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Again, in lines 14, 15 and 17 the words “don’t you” are repeatedly used to warn the boy of the potential obstacles and dangers to stop him midway. He must not pay heed to those.

So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
Don’t you fall now—

In lines 18 and 19, the words “I’se still” have been repeated by the mother to emphasize her perseverance so far.

For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,

Polysyndeton

Polysyndeton is close repetition of conjunction. The repetitions of “And” in the above examples of anaphora can also be termed as polysyndeton.

And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Extended Metaphor

The poet has used an extended metaphor of a staircase to represent the life’s journey. The whole story of the mother and her advice for her son relate to this metaphorical staircase. While white people climbed up a ‘crystal stair’, the black mother had a badly-repaired staircase for her upward journey.

The challenges faced by the black woman in a racist American society is compared to a climb up a dangerous staircase while smooth and comfortable lifestyle of the white people is compared to a climb up a crystal stair.

Refrain

Refrain is the repetition of same line in a poem or song. In “Mother to Son” Hughes repeats the second line of the poem as the closing line.

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

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