Mother to Son
Mother to Son
Langston Hughes 1922
“Mother to Son” was first published in the magazine Crisis in December of 1922 and reappeared in Langston Hughes’s first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926. In that volume and later works, Hughes explores the lives of African-Americans who struggle against poverty and discrimination. Hughes was dubbed “the poet laureate of Harlem” for his many portraits of Harlem as a crossroads of African-American experience. “Mother to Son” is a dramatic monologue, spoken by the persona of a black mother to her son. Using the metaphor of a stairway, the mother tells her son that the journey of life more closely resembles a long, trying walk up the dark, decrepit stairways of a tenement than a glide down a “crystal stair.” The “crystal stair” is a metaphor for the American dream and its promise that all Americans shall have equal opportunities. The mother warns her son not to expect an easy climb or a tangible reward. Through the metaphor of ascent, however, the speaker suggests that her endurance and struggle are necessary to progress toward racial justice and to maintain spiritual hope and faith. In this poem, Hughes represents the personal, collective, and spiritual importance of struggle, endurance, and faith.
Hughes was born in in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who separated shortly after their son’s
birth. Hughes’s mother had attended college, while his father, who wanted to become a lawyer, took correspondence courses in law. Denied a chance to take the Oklahoma bar exam, Hughes’s father went first to Missouri and then, still unable to become a lawyer, left his wife and son to move first to Cuba and then to Mexico. In Mexico, he became a wealthy landowner and lawyer. Because of financial difficulties, Hughes’s mother moved frequently in search of steady work, often leaving him with her parents. His grandmother Mary Leary Langston was the first black woman to attend Oberlin College. She inspired the boy to read books and value an education. When his grandmother died in 1910, Hughes lived with family friends and various relatives in Kansas. In 1915 he joined his mother and new stepfather in Lincoln, Illinois, where he attended grammar school. The following year, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There he attended Central High School, excelling in both academics and sports. Hughes also wrote poetry and short fiction for the Belfry Owl, the high school literary magazine, and edited the school yearbook. In 1920 Hughes left to visit his father in Mexico, staying in that country for a year. Returning home in 1921, he attended Columbia University for a year before dropping out. For a time he worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, visited Africa, and wrote poems for a number of American magazines. In 1923 and 1924 Hughes lived in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1925 and resettled with his mother and half-brother in Washington, D.C. He continued writing poetry while working menial jobs. In May and August of 1925 Hughes’s verse earned him literary prizes from both Opportunity and Crisis magazines. In December Hughes, then a busboy at a Washington, D.C, hotel, attracted the attention of poet Vachel Lindsay by placing three of his poems on Lindsay’s dinner table. Later that evening Lindsay read Hughes’s poems to an audience and announced his discovery of a “Negro busboy poet.” The next day reporters and photographers eagerly greeted Hughes at work to hear more of his compositions. He published his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926. Around this time Hughes became active in the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of creativity among a group of African-American artists and writers. Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other writers founded Fire!, a literary journal devoted to African-American culture. The venture was unsuccessful, however, and ironically a fire eventually destroyed the editorial offices. In 1932 Hughes traveled with other black writers to the Soviet Union on an ill-fated film project. His infatuation with Soviet Communism and Joseph Stalin led Hughes to write on politics throughout the 1930s. He also became involved in drama, founding several theaters. In 1938 he founded the Suitcase Theater in Harlem, in 1939 the Negro Art Theater in Los Angeles, and in 1941 the Skyloft Players in Chicago. In 1943 Hughes received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Lincoln University, and in 1946 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He continued to write poetry throughout the rest of his life, and by the 1960s he was known as the “Dean of Negro Writers.” Hughes died in New York on May 22, 1967.
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The first two lines establish what the title implies: this poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by the persona of a mother to her son. The son never speaks; the mother’s life experience and advice may therefore apply to all readers, but particularly to young African-American readers. The metaphor of the crystal stair may represent several things. It may symbolize dreams that the mother once held but which she has learned no longer to expect. The crystal stair may also represent the mother’s spiritual quest toward heaven, Christian grace, and redemption. Or, in material terms, it may invoke the large, gleaming staircases that starlets glide down in movies. In each possible interpretation, the crystal stair connotes smoothness and ease, delicacy, wealth, and a clear, well-lit path toward a rich (material or spiritual) destination. These connotations contrast with images in the poem that show how rough and discouraging the mother’s actual life has been.
In these lines, the mother describes the specific ways that her life’s journey has diverged from the ideal of the crystal stair. Grammatically, the “it” in line 3 refers to the subject of the previous sentence: “Life.” Thus one might interpret the line to read, “my life’s had tacks in it.” Or, extending the metaphor of the stairway (of life), the “it” may refer to stairs. Tacks and splinters may be read as figurative hazards one might find on an actual stairway in a rundown building. The tacks, splinters, worn-out carpet, and torn-up boards represent overuse and neglect. Many travellers before the mother have hauled themselves on this journey, and many will do so after her. The damaged parts of the stairway may represent the inability of individual sojourners to repair the structures under-girding their lives (such as poverty and reduced opportunity) or it may represent the disadvantaged state of black life in America itself. The “torn up” boards may represent someone’s attempt to dismantle this stairway altogether. R. Baxter Miller interprets the “tacks” and “splinters” in this poem as threats to the mother’s body and soul. Physically, the tacks and splinters represent small, nagging pains that might puncture and infect the mother as she struggles upward. Symbolically, however, these small threats represent potential injuries to “the black American soul.” The mother’s recognition of these obstacles and her apparent avoidance of them signal her wise negotiation of life’s setbacks.
Having listed some of the literal and figurative hazards the son might encounter on his journey, the mother affirms the value of persistence and faith in one’s goal. From lines 8 to 13, she makes it clear that, despite obstacles, she has continued to make gains. The mother’s personal advancement represents progress for the black race as well. The landings and turns in the mother’s climb may be metaphors for brief victories or respites from personal, racial, or spiritual struggles. The mother may mention these moments of ease to assure the son that some parts of life’s uphill climb will offer glimpses of hope and accomplishment.
Like the tacks and splinters in lines 3 and 4, the image of a dark stairway with the light removed, broken, or never installed, calls to mind an actual stairway in a building of poor tenants. Hughes includes such realistic details to make the metaphor of a stairway literal and symbolic at once. It is easier for readers to grasp and remember ideas that they can picture or sense, so poets often include sensory details in their work. In this poem, Hughes carefully includes details that appeal to the reader’s vision, hearing, and touch. The tacks and splinters of lines 3-4 awaken the reader’s sense of touch and danger; the darkness in lines 12-13 causes the reader to experience the mother’s blind groping around obstacles toward an unseen goal. The mother’s “goin’ in the dark / Where there ain’t been no light” may represent her persistent struggles despite her own waning faith or hope. Or, the dark may symbolize the external obstacles despite which she climbs. Hughes may repeat the idea of darkness twice in lines 12-13 to suggest different kinds of darkness: physical and spiritual. Or the repetition may serve to make the mother’s words sound like real speech, which is usually more repetitive and colloquial than written words.
- An audio cassette titled Langston Hughes Reads, is available from Audiobooks.
From line 14 to 20, the mother’s advice takes a final turn. Whereas the first seven lines depict the hardships the son can expect in life and the next six lines assert the mother’s example of persistence through adversity, the final seven lines urge the son to keep going, despite setbacks and his wishes to stop or turn back. The critic Onwuchekwa Jemie translates the mother’s command in line 15, not to “set down on the steps,” into specifically black, urban, social terms. In Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Jemie argues that “to stop is to become a sitter on stoops and stander on street corners … or to become a prostitute, pimp, hustler or thief. To despair is, in short, to wither and die.” The mother urges the son not to succumb to the temptation to give up. Having felt despair and resisted it, she knows that the choice to persist benefits the individual and the race. She warns him in line 17 not to fall ‘now’ because she has brought them so far and is ‘still climbin’.” The potential “fall” might symbolize both their falls from spiritual grace as well as a political setback for African Americans. Collectively, if many sons (and daughters) despair and drop out, the struggle for equality is that much less likely to succeed. In the last line, the mother repeats her refrain regarding the moral, spiritual, and political necessity to endure adversity and keep climbing.
Race and Racism
The struggle that the mother in this poem describes is common to all people of every race and class, but Hughes narrows in on her identity by giving the speaker’s voice the dialect of a poor, undereducated African American. Readers who recognize this dialect and who have even a little knowledge about the struggle for racial equality in the United States will be able to associate the “staircase” metaphor and the setbacks that the speaker says she faced with the obstacles faced by American blacks, particularly in the early twentieth century, when the laws of the land permitted discriminatory practices. Particular clues that this is a southern black dialect include the contraction of “I is” (“I’se) meaning a mixture of “I am” and “I have”; the addition of the prefix “a-” to the word “climbin’” to indicate that the action is still going on; and the term of endearment “honey.” Independently, none of these stylistic traits would be enough to identify the speaker’s culture, but Hughes does such a thorough job of weaving a pattern together, that even a reader who is unfamiliar with the author’s racial background would get a sense of who the poem’s speaker is.
The difficulties faced by the mother in this poem are symbolized by tacks, splinters, bare floors, and dark hallways—all signs of poverty. In associating this particular black American speaker with these particular images, Hughes is able to hint at the injustice in the relationship between poverty and race. This mother certainly is not poor because she is lazy or weak-willed, since we can see her determination to work and succeed in almost every line. For a woman of such determination to be kept this poor indicates that hardship is not a moral issue, but is related to an external cause, such as the limits that are put on people because of their race.
Individual vs. the Universe
The point that the mother is making in this poem is that life is a struggle and that her son would be mistaken to expect anything better than difficulty. She mentions symbols of her struggle that reflect her own life, apparently to show that she knows the subject from firsthand experience, thus assuring him that his own problems are not being unfairly apportioned to him and him alone. Because she has to explain this to her son as if it is news to him, we can assume that she was not the type of person to complain about her troubles while her son was growing up: he might easily have interpreted her quietness as a sign that she was comfortable with her life and, from this, assumed that her life indeed was a crystal stair. She addresses him in this poem in order to correct any mistaken assumption he may have that life should be free of problems just because hers has seemed to be so. In the implied fact that the mother has accepted her difficulties so quietly that her own son was unaware of them and has to have them explained to him, Hughes has raised a few philosophic issues about mankind’s relationship to the universe. The most obvious one is that of struggle. When the mother says “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” we can assume that the same would hold true for many, if not most, honest, hard-working people. The second lesson that is implied here is that we should bear suffering quietly and not draw attention to it. The mother in this poem does not tell her son this directly, but Hughes obviously intends for us to admire her and to learn from the fact that her life’s difficulty had been quietly accepted.
If the son being addressed in this poem hopes to deny that his situation will be different than the one that is described to him (as seems to be his mother’s point in describing her situation at all), it will not be easy: too much connects his own identity to his mother for him to think that life will be very different for him. Usually in human affairs the fates of two family members will turn out more alike than the fates of random strangers. Psychologists explain similarities in families with a range of theories that all touch upon the famed “nature/nurture” argument: that is, different opinions stress whether relatives have similar experiences because they are taught (or “nurtured”) to behave in similar ways or because their behaviors are determined by their genetic code (their “nature”). The use of an African-American dialect in this poem highlights the idea that the son should expect certain difficulties, because to some extent society treated all blacks the same. But the fact that it is his mother speaking tells him, and us, that the struggle ahead of him is not just a theory but is his fate.
A more complete identification between the speaker and the intended audience would exist if this poem were “Father to Son.” Hughes apparently wanted to make use of the inherent contrast caused by crossing the experienced party in the parent/child relationship with the traditionally “weaker” gender in the male/female relationship. Sons often feel protective of their mothers, but mothers are always more worldly. If the speaker of this poem had been the son’s father, he may not have needed to explain the difficulty of his life, because the son would have identified more completely with the older man and known about his life without being told. But our society creates so much distance between the two genders that this son apparently
Topics for Further Study
- Think of a turn of phrase or a speech characteristic that would mark the way you speak. Write a poem containing the advice you will give your children about living in the modern world. Mention how old you think your child should be when you give your advice.
- Explain why you think this mother would use the image of the “crystal stair” to symbolize a life of comfort. Where would she have seen such a thing? Why would she have imagined it? Write a detailed list of the associations that might have made relevant in the mother’s mind.
- In what way does the dialect used in this poem (for example: “I’se,” “a-climbin’”) help Hughes communicate with his audience? Do you think his use of dialect limits his audience?
could not identify with his mother’s quiet determination, instead mistaking it for acceptance.
Since “Mother to Son” is a dramatic monologue, the primary purpose of Hughes’s word choices and line arrangements is to quickly and convincingly capture the speech and character of a disadvantaged African-American mother. To more closely approximate the rhythms and folk diction, or word choices, of a black persona or character, Hughes uses a number of poetic and literary techniques. He writes in free verse, meaning the lines are un-rhymed and vary in length and meter (the pattern of beats in each line). Specifically, the number of syllables per line varies from one (line 7 is “Bare.”) to ten (in line 20, which iambic pentameter). In addition to capturing the rhythms of ordinary speech, the poem’s irregular line lengths may mirror the setbacks, turns, and uneven progress of the speaker on her life’s climb. Sometimes, a poem’s shape on the page reinforces its themes.
Hughes uses other markers of African-American speech, such as contractions and colloquial uses of the verb “to be”: “I’se been a-climbin’ on” and such variations as “set” for “sit”: “Don’t you set down.” Hughes sought to represent African-American speech with dignity and verve for, in the hands of many white American writers, black dialect was used to perpetuate stereotypes of black ignorance. Hughes sought to overturn such caricatures by representing humor, strength, wisdom, and music in the plain speech of his African-American poetic personas. After carefully interpreting the mother’s insights and messages to her son, the reader recognizes that in “Mother to Son” and many of Hughes’s poems, uneducated diction signifies a lifetime of reduced opportunity rather than ignorance or lazy speech. Thus, the emotional drama of the mother’s will to persist is heightened considerably by the disadvantage that her diction bespeaks.
By 1926, when Hughes published this poem in his book The Weary Blues, the artistic movement that we know as the Harlem Renaissance was at the height of its fame and productivity. The Harlem Renaissance, an informal gathering of writers, painters, musicians, and philosophers who worked in the Harlem section of New York City in the 1920s, started soon after World War I ended in 1918 and withered away by the time the Great Depression began with the stock market crash of 1929. To some extent, we can say that it is a happy coincidence that some of the world’s greatest talents all ended up in the same place at the same time. Looking more deeply, though, we see that the outpouring of expression during the Harlem Renaissance was driven not just by talent but by an urgent need to express a cultural identity. Harlem in the 1920s was the place where the artistic sensibilities of black America were inevitably destined to attract the attention of the world.
In the nineteenth century the majority of African Americans lived in the South because they were descendants of slaves who had been brought here to farm the massive plantations in that region. After the Confederate Army of the South surrendered in 1865, bringing an end to the Civil War, slavery was abolished in this country. The Southern legislatures, however, passed laws that made it impossible for blacks to become socially or economically equal to whites. These “Jim Crow laws” (named after an offensively stupid and lazy black character from a 1832 minstrel show) blocked voting or land ownership by blacks by holding them to nearly impossible “intelligence tests” or “economic criteria” that most whites would have also failed to meet if they had been required. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court gave its approval to these discriminatory laws by deciding in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that states could offer “separate but equal” facilities to blacks for education, transportation, and public accommodations. The pretense toward fairness in this ruling ignored the fact that the accommodations were almost never equal: less government money found its way to black hospitals, bus lines, parks, etc., and private enterprises certainly offered blacks only their worst. It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled the “separate but equal” doctrine unfair, in a case called Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Early in the twentieth century, though, Southern blacks found some form of relief from the unequal conditions with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of major manufacturing centers in Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New York. There was still terrible discrimination in the North, but it was not formally established in the laws. In addition, the factories of the North, producing steel and automobiles, needed laborers, and they paid good wages to workers with no prior experience. When World War I began in Europe in 1914, the push to provide munitions made the North even more inviting to African Americans. A laborer making $1.10 per day in the South could make $3.75 in a Northern factory, while a woman working as a domestic in the South for $2.50 per week could make $2.10 to $2.50 a day in the North. The war also opened manufacturing opportunities for blacks by narrowing the number of immigrant workers coming from Europe. The black population in Northern cities ballooned; in New York City alone, the number of blacks went from 60,666 in 1900 to 152,467 in 1920, growing throughout the twenties to 327,706 by 1930.
The urban African Americans began to seek their own identity in ways that they never had a chance to when they were dispersed on farms throughout the South. During the war, approximately 367,000 blacks served in the Armed Forces. Although still facing considerable discrimination in the military, black servicemen brought home a new awareness of how small and temporary many American prejudices were. Military service exposed
Compare & Contrast
- 1922: A. E. Staley of Decatur, Illinois, opened the first soybean refinery in the United States. Previously, soybeans had been used for livestock feed.
1940: The U.S. soybean crop reached 78 million bushels, up from 5 million bushel in 1924.
1944: 12 million acres of U.S. farming land were devoted to growing soybeans. Products created out of oils derived from soybeans included livestock feed, enamel, solvents, plastics, insecticides, steel hardening agents, and beer.
1945: Soybean production reached 193 million bushels, almost three times the level of just five years before.
1966: Bac-Os were developed by General Mills. Made from isolate soy protein, they taste like bacon.
Today: Soybeans will soon outpace wheat as the United States’ second largest crop. (The nation still, however, grows more than three times as much corn as either soybeans or wheat.)
- 1922: Twenty-eight-year-old Angelo Sicilano won a contest sponsored by Physican Culture magazine, naming him the “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” Taking the name Charles Atlas, he opened his own gymnasium in Manhattan in 1926, and by 1927 his corporation was charging $1,000 per student for mail-order body-building lessons.
1956: The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport was established.
1985: Starting with the motion picture Rambo: First Blood, Part II, Hollywood produced a string of movies with muscle-enhanced male action stars. Health clubs became more popular than discos as places for young adults to meet. By the end of this trend former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarznegger had become the most popular movie star in the world.
Today: Despite increased awareness of the importance of physical fitness and the multi-billion dollar fitness industry, more than 60 percent of all adults are more than twenty percent over their body weight.
- 1922: States were allowed to establish laws that required blacks and whites to live in separate places, stay in separate hotels and motels, ride separate sections of buses, use separate drinking fountains, sit in separate areas of movie theaters, attend separate churches, seek treatment at separate hospitals, etc.
1955: Rosa Parks, an African-American bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. The boycott that followed her arrest, organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, brought the matter of segregation to the Supreme Court, who ruled in 1956 that segregation of public transportation was illegal.
1964: The Johnson administration passed the Civil Rights Act that President Kennedy had been working on before he was assassinated. Among other provisions, the Act required that schools should be desegregated, so that African Americans would not be left to receive inferior educations in second-rate schools.
Today: Despite laws that legislate against discrimination, blacks and whites in America usually live, shop, and attend school in different places.
many white Americans to blacks for the first time, and they learned respect. The characteristics that racists had claimed about in blacks in order to oppress them for decades—claiming that they were simple, naive, ignorant and primitivistic—ironically started looking good to intellectuals, in light of the sophisticated and rational war that had just taken so many lives barbarically.
After the war, the Harlem section of New York City, where blacks comprised over 90 percent of the population, became recognized as a center for artistic and intellectual activity. It offered blacks both the security of a small, self-contained community and, at the same time, as part of America’s publishing and entertainment capital, it offered access to national and international audiences. At night, New York’s wealthiest went “up to Harlem” in search of clubs that served liquor, which had been made illegal in 1920 by the Constitution’s Eighteenth Amendment. Rich intellectuals rubbed shoulders with poor intellectuals: Hughes himself was in fact “discovered by” prominent poet Vachel Lindsay when he slipped some poems to Lindsay while waiting on his table. Together, writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance raised the world’s consciousness of what life was like for Americans of African descent.
Commentators on “Mother to Son” tend to focus on either racial, religious, or feminist themes for the poem’s forms. Chidi Ikonne, writing in the collection Langston Hughes, suggests that this and other poems by Hughes present a stance of “stability which, ironically, has developed from the instability of the speaker’s experience” in a racist society. Emphasizing religious themes, R. Baxter Miller, in his 1989 book The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, argues that the mother in this poem is a “figure of mythic ascent” who is struggling to “merge with Godhead.” Miller argues that “we find in her less a progression of the body than an evolution of the soul.” With a similar emphasis on religious symbolism, Onwuchekwa Jemie refers to the mother as a “Black Madonna” in his book Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry.
Other critics illuminate the poem’s feminist elements. Critic James Emanuel, in his 1967 book Langston Hughes, notes that “Mother to Son” is among the first of many of Hughes’s poems to portray a strong matriarch. R. Baxter Miller also discusses the symbolic role of women and mothers in Hughes’s poetry. Miller argues that Hughes’s female speakers represent archetypes, or original models, of human “endurance, … mortality, [and] marital desertion.” In this poem, the woman also represents the continuation of the race. Having given life to the next generation (her son), raised him, and persisted in her struggles for his sake and that of future generations, the mother represents a figure of female strength, affirmation, and generational continuity.
Still other critics focus on the poem’s lyric elements. James Baldwin, a major African-American writer contemporary with Hughes, commented that “Hughes is at his best … in lyrics like ‘Mother to Son’ and ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’.” The poem’s lyric elements include a first person speaker, an expression of intense personal emotion, and a belief in spiritual transcendence of time and earthly circumstance.
Aidan Wasley is a writer and instructor at Yale Unversity. In the essay below, Wasley explores Hughes’s dramatic monologue “Mother to Son,” positioning it within the context of African–American culture and traditions and linking the character of the mother with the voice of African-American history.
“Mother to Son,” one of Langston Hughes’s earliest poems, takes the form of a dramatic monologue; that is, a poem spoken not in the poet’s own voice but in that of a particular imagined speaker, in this case a weary mother addressing her son. The son, as we can surmise from the first line, has either asked his mother a question or complained of his frustrations, to which his mother responds, “Well, son, I’ll tell you.” She proceeds to recount for her son the difficulties of her own life, telling him “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” yet suggesting to him that those difficulties are, if not ultimately surmountable, at least worth struggling against:
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set 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.
The poem’s use of the dramatic monologue places the reader in the position of the son, listening to his mother draw a lesson from her life that can be applied to his own. The reader is thus drawn into the poem, as the son’s frustrations become our own, and the mother’s advice becomes directed at us. The identification with the speaker and the listener which the poem forces upon the reader encourages us to look for ways in which this poem can be seen to address issues beyond the apparently simple scene it
What Do I Read Next?
- Hughes was the author, along with Milton Meltzer and C. Eric Lincoln, of a 1956 book titled A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, which was reprinted in 1983 as A Pictorial History of Black Americans. The photos in this book give a vivid sense of American history: the reader can see separate “Colored” facilities at restaurants, movie balconies, parking lots, etc. Hughes’s text reads like that of a moderate intellectual whose patience is wearing thin.
- James Weldon Johnson was a major African-American poet who is considered pre-Harlem Renaissance, although he was still an active writer throughout the 1920s. His introduction to his book of poetry titled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons In Verse, which was first published in 1927 and has since stayed in print, offers one of the most eloquent arguments ever made about the pros and cons of writing in black dialect. You can see Johnson’s influence in Hughes’ second novel, Tambourines to Glory, published in 1958.
- Of all the critical histories of black poetry written in recent years, Eugene B. Redmond’s 1976 Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry tells the story most coherently. Hughes’s preeminence as a central figure among black writers in America will never be disputed, and Redmond gives him due attention while examining the other writers who have followed.
- Hughes’ career spanned decades. Among his contemporaries at the time he wrote this poem, one of the most fascinating is Jamaican-born Claude McKay. His 1922 collection The Poems of Claude McKay examines Harlem in its early years as a center for black Americans from the perspective of an immigrant.
depicts, and raises questions about the poet’s strategies for communicating those concerns.
Hughes, who wrote this poem when he was 21, was—obviously—neither an old woman, nor, as a college-educated intellectual, did he speak or write in the dialect in which the mother’s thoughts are expressed. What then are the implications of this imaginative projection? Why would the young, highly educated African-American poet imagine himself speaking in the voice of an old woman talking about the troubles of her life to her son? What might this old woman symbolize?
In another famous Hughes poem, entitled “The Negro Mother,” we find a similar speaker in a similar dramatic situation, as the title character addresses her African-American sons and daughters:
Children, I come back today
To tell you a story of the long dark way
That I had to climb, that I had to know
In order that the race might live and grow.
In “The Negro Mother,” which was written some years after”Mother to Son,” the speaker also tells her children about the “dark” and difficult “climb” she has faced in her life, and suggests that her struggles will make those of her children easier to bear. But in the later poem, Hughes makes explicit the connection between the speaker and larger issues of African-American culture, as the figure of “The Negro Mother” comes to be seen not simply as an old woman talking to her children, but as, in some sense, the voice of African-American history itself, recounting its arduous struggle “that the race might live and grow.” In the same way, we can see the speaker of “Mother to Son” as representing a kind of collective voice, the voice of the generations of African-Americans whose troubled history—from the slave-ships, to the plantations, to Reconstruction, to the Great Migration to the urban North—“ain’t been no crystal stair.”
It has been a long, wearying, uphill journey, she says,
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
“While ‘Mother to Son’ shows the influence of Hughes’s interest in the blues, … it lies most directly within the tradition of the spiritual,”
The speaker equates the history of African Americans with an endless flight of broken-down stairs, such as might be found in the the cramped and crumbling tenements in which many poor blacks found themselves forced to live in the ghetto neighborhoods of the northern cities. Yet no matter how frustrating or tiring the climb, no matter how many setbacks she has suffered, she says, “I’se been a-climbin’ on.” The future of blacks in America, she suggests to her son and to the reader, depends on this willingness to keep climbing, to not turn back, to not “set down on the steps / ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.” We’re not at the top of the stairs yet, she tells us, and we may feel like giving up, but it is only by continuing to climb that, in the words of the traditional African-American spiritual, “We shall overcome someday.”
The roots of Hughes’s poetry run deep into the tradition of African-American music, especially spirituals, jazz, and blues. The title of Hughes’s first book, in which “Mother to Son” was published, was The Weary Blues, and throughout his career he proved an innovator in adapting the forms and motifs of the blues—with its heavy beats, recurrent refrains, and melancholy narratives—and the improvisitory riffs and earthy themes of jazz, to poetry. While “Mother to Son” shows the influence of Hughes’s interest in the blues, especially in its use of repetition and of the idiomatic dialect in which most blues songs were sung (though Hughes also found ample precedent for his use of dialect in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who gained fame at the turn of the century as the “Bard of the Negro Race” through his colorful verse written in rural black patois), it lies most directly within the tradition of the spiritual, a connection which is made clear through the central image of the poem, the “crystal stair.”
In this image we hear an echo of the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-22), in which Jacob sees in a dream a vision of a celestial stairway upon which angels climb and descend between earth and heaven. In the dream God tells Jacob, “This land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants [and] they will be as countless as the dust of the earth.” That land would become Israel and Jacob’s sons, the Israelites. This story held an abiding significance within the African-American Christian tradition—especially in the pre-Civil-War slave-holding South—as it spoke to a faith that, like the Israelites, black Americans too would be delivered to a “Promised Land.” The heavenly stairway became a powerful image of liberation and salvation, attainable only through suffering and faith in God. Hughes, along with most African-Americans of his time, would have been very familiar with the associations of Jacob’s Ladder with the struggle for freedom and equality of blacks in America, especially in its expression in one of the best-known traditional spirituals, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” This song, which would have been sung first in the fields and later in churches, involves a call-and-response between a singer and a chorus not unlike the relationship of Hughes’s mother and son. It speaks of climbing “higher and higher” to become “soldiers of the Lord,” includes the exhortation “Keep on climbing, we will make it,” and ends with the question, “Children do you want your freedom?”
In this light, it becomes easy to see Hughes’s mother figure as something like a racial matriarch addressing her scattered children and exhorting them to “keep on climbing” on their way to freedom. It also shows us how Hughes uses a single image, the “crystal stair,” to evoke simultaneously the painful history of blacks in America while pointing to the tradition of faith and hope that has sustained them through it all.
But there is, perhaps, yet another way of reading this poem. In the history of poetry, poets have often included representations in their poems of their “muse.” The idea of a poet’s muse is based on the notion within Greek mythology of the Nine Muses—sister-goddesses who were responsible for inspiring all the different arts. The figure of the muse—what we might call the personification of the poet’s inspiration—is usually represented as a woman to whom the poet gives credit for his or her power to write. It is not uncommon—at least until the twentieth century—for poets to include invocations to or by the muse in their poetry, as in the case of the the sixteenth-century poet Sir Philip Sidney, whose muse, at the beginning of a long sequence of poems called “Astrophil and Stella,” famously tells him, “Look in thy heart and write.” In this context, we might read the mother in Hughes’s poem not only as a representation of African-American history, but also as a kind of muse-figure.
Hughes was just beginning his career as a poet when he wrote this poem, so questions of what to write about and how best to forge his poetic voice and identity would be pressing issues for him. Would he strive to represent his race in poetry, and be a self-consciously black poet, or would he reject a racial poetic identity, as poets like Countee Cullen would try to do? Would he look to his African-American cultural heritage for inspiration, or was the black American experience, and its tradition of artistic expression, somehow outside the conventional boundaries of poetry? These were difficult questions for the young writer, and if we read “Mother to Son” in terms of these concerns, we see the poet struggling to come to terms with them. In this context, the “son” of the title becomes not the reader, but the poet himself, and the poem suggests that the son’s frustration and despair is that of the poet, faced with the impossible task of writing poetry that truly speaks to and for the African-American experience. The poet—the “son” of African American history and its artistic legacy of spirituals, blues, and jazz—looks to his “mother” for advice and the strength to keep going. Her response is stern, yet supportive: “So boy, don’t you turn back. / Don’t you sit down on the steps / ’Cause you finds it kinder hard.” The task he has before him is an arduous one, she says, but it is an important and necessary one. African-American culture and history keeps moving and it is his job as poet to record it; she’s “still climbin’” and he has to keep step.
The poet’s “mother,” who speaks in the voice of the African-American tradition, teaches him he need not abandon that tradition in order to write poetry. All poetry, she says, need not be about “crystal stairs.” It can have “tacks” and “splinters” in it, “and places with no carpet on the floor.” It need not conform to white conventions in either form or subject—it can be “bare”—yet it need not ignore those conventions if they can be of use (In fact, the line, “And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is written in iambic pentameter, the most traditional of English poetic meters). The poet discovers, from listening to his mother-muse, a way to bring the African-American experience into poetry. He finds a way to move forward, to keep climbing. We can read in this poem, then, a kind of metaphor for the young poet’s artistic coming of age. From his “mother” he learns the value and power of his vocation. He hears in her song his own voice.
Source: Aidan Wasley, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
R. Baxter Miller
In a discussion of the archetype of the Black woman in the work of Hughes, Baxter Miller cites specific examples displayed in the poem “Mother to Son.”
Langston Hughes empowered his various renditions of the Black woman with a double-edged vision. At once it heroically faced the Jim Crow discrimination in the early part of the twentieth century, taking in some comic detachment as well, and showed Blacks transcending the social limitations some whites would impose upon them. What Hughes sensed in the folk source of woman was the dynamic will to epic heroism in both the physical and spiritual dimensions, and while the compulsion revealed itself in varying forms—the disciplined application to labor, the folk trickery that allows comic wit to circumvent defeat, the direct act of social defiance—Black woman incarnated the complex imagination and the masks through which it appeared. When her presence declined in his poetry, as in “Madrid—1937” and “Down Where I Am” (Voices, 1950), power and hope diminished somewhat as well. Whether in The Ways of White Folks(1934), The Best of Simple(1961), or the most telling of the short fiction, the eventual secularization of her previously religious image would increase irony as well as comic distance in the work. Though it was appropriate to Hughes’ largesse, as an ethical writer, to restore complex humanity to Black woman in particular and woman in general, he had to replace the great void she had once occupied as idol and type. Then he would have to look at her as the well-rounded human being she was.
Even in the great lyrics such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (Crisis, June 1921) and “Daybreak in Alabama” (Unquote, June 1940), where woman disappears as a persona, her symbolic yet invisible presence pervades (to speak in Hughes’ metaphors) the fertility of the earth, the waters, and the rebirth of the morning. To trace the complex and rich design of woman in his world means to understand the symbolic movements enacted through the passage of his entire career, with varying
“For Hughes, Black woman in particular signifies the cycle through which the poetic imagination emerges from history and transcends it but, as in ‘Fanny Free’ (a tale of Simple), falls Back to earth or history.”
degrees of free play back and forth from the great lyrics and monologues (“Mother to Son,” Crisis, 1922), through his melodramas (“Father and Son,” 1934; Mulatto, 1934-35) and comic detachments (the Madam poems; One-Way Tickets, 1949). The poems on women help to establish an overview for all his succeeding genres. They lead from his lighter humor and cryptic “warning” to white American in 1951 finally to the brilliant and underestimated stream of consciousness (Ask Your Mama, 1961), subsuming yet transcending them all.
For Langston Hughes the metaphor of woman marks the rise from the historical source, the folk expression of his grandmother in 1910, to the Civil Rights movement and the white backlash in late 1967. For Hughes, Black woman in particular signifies the cycle through which the poetic imagination emerges from history and transcends it but, as in “Fanny Free” (a tale of Simple), falls back to earth or history.
In as statement by Maud Bodkin, one of the ablest critics of Hughes’ time, we find a way to read some of his most accomplished poems. Bodkin explains the function of the female image in literature:
Following the associations of the figure of the muse as communicated in Milton’s poetry, we have reached a representation of yet wider significance-the figure of the divine mother appearing in varied forms, as Thetis mourning for Achilles, or Ishtar mourning and seeking for Tammuz. In this mother and child pattern the figure of the child, or youth, is not distinctively of either sex, though the male youth appears the older form. In historical times, the pattern as it enters poetry may be present, either as beautiful boy or warrior—Adonis, Achilles—or as maiden—Prosperine, Kore—an embodiment of youth’s bloom and transient splendor. In either case, the figure appears as the type-object of a distinctive emotion—a complex emotion within which we may recognize something of fear, pity and tender admiration such as a parent may feel, but “distanced,” as by relation to an object universal, an event inevitable.
Not only does the code make for the coherence in “Mother to Son” (1922) and “The Negro Mother” (1931), possibly the two most famous of the matriarchal verses, but the exploration extends to some of the less well-known poems, thereby helping reveal finally the code of faith and redemption in contemporary American literature and thought.
“Mother to Son” begins the strong matriarchal portraits found in Hughes’ poetry and fiction. In twenty lines of dramatic monologue a Black persona addresses her son. Making clear the hardships of Black life, she asserts the paradox of the American mythmakers, who propose that all Americans are equal. Subsequently, she acknowledges the personal and racial progress through her metaphor of ascent. In a powerful refrain she teaches the child her moral of endurance as well as triumph: “And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Structurally, the poem provides the folk diction and rhythm that make the woman real: “Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been …” To simulate the inflections of Black colloquialisms, the individual lines skillfully blend anapestic, iambic, and trochaic cadences:
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.
Varied in syllabic length, the lines have ten, nine, eight, and seven cadences; others have four, three, and one.… Although the last line is iambic, the meter of the poem depends more on the noted simulation of Black rhetoric, the actual cadences of folk speech, than on metric form.
In “Mother to Son,” the complex of Christian myth informs the portrait of the woman. As a figure of mythic ascent, she becomes only typologically at one with the Vergil of the Divine Comedy or the Christ of the New Testament. But she is neither a great and ancient poet nor a god incarnate; rather, she is Woman struggling to merge with godhead. In more than making her way from failure to success, she moves from a worldly vision to a religious one, for hers is less a progression of the body than an evolution of the soul. Her last line—“And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”—repeats and reinforces her second. Yet through the power of her will and imagination, she has endowed the world far more richly by her inner light than society ever bequeathed opportunities to her. While the social world hardly ennobles her, she nevertheless ennobles it, and the quality of her grandeur marks the depth of her humanity. She cautions her son, “Don’t you fall now.” Because she associates the quest with her divine vision, any separation from it implies the fallen world, demarcating in itself the descent from heavenly grace.
While Christian myth is central to its complexity of meanings, the poem implies the interwoven designs of quest and self-realization. With the past participle of the durative verb be, the mother tells her offspring, “I’se been a-climbin’ on.” As the vertical ascent anticipates her continued ascent, it looks forward to temporary success or to a respite from future quest (“reachin’ landin’s and turnin’ corners”).
Shrouded in religious myth, the Black woman must still confront secular reality, and the tension reveals the idea of Black oppression. The building, that synecdochical and metaphysical sign, becomes life itself as well as the questionable belief in any cosmic order. Dilapidated boards and bare feet imply the presence of deprivation or poverty in the house. Because the mother lived literally in a building that had loose tacks and splinters, she risked physical penetration and infection throughout her life. Yet she has withstood any fatal injury to the Black American soul. Her internal light illuminates the outer world.
Source: “The ‘Crystal Stair’ within The Apocalyptic Imagination” in The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 33-37.
Baldwin, James, “Sermons and Blues,” in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1959, p. 6.
Dubois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk. Signet, 1969, p. 3.
Emanuel, James A., Langston Hughes, College and University Press, 1967, 192 p.
Huggins, Nathan, ed., Voices From the Harlem Renaissance, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
“… hers is less a progression of the body than an evolution of the soul.”
Ikonne, Chidi, “Affirmation of Black Self,” in Langston Hughes, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1989, pp. 151-68.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1976, 234 p.
Miller, R. Baxter, The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
Perrett, Geoffrey, America in the Twenties: Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Wintz, Cary D., Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, Houston: Rice University Press, 1988.
Berry, Faith, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983.
This biography gives more attention than most to the years of Hughes’s childhood, before he moved to Harlem, and to his relationship to his mother.
Emanuel, James A., Langston Hughes, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Although this book has some biographical elements, it is mainly a critical analysis of Hughes’s works.
Kent, George F., “Langston Hughes and Afro-American Folk and Cultural Tradition,” in Langston Hughes: Black Genius, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1971, pp. 183-210.
The background this essay gives about folk tradition and how it applies to Hughes’s work in general gives the reader a perspective for the dialect used in this poem, even though the poem itself is not discussed.
Lewis, David Leavering, When Harlem Was In Vogue, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
Going beyond the narrow focus of the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement, this book examines life in general in Harlem at the time Hughes lived there. It was a fascinating period, rendered here in a lively way.