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Mother to Son Poem (A Warning Letter to Her Son)

Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son poem was first published in the magazine Crisis in December 1922. It was also included in Hughes’ four-year-later collection, The Weary Blues.

Mother to Son Poem

Mother to Son Poem

This is one of his most popular and relatable pieces. Readers from all walks of life can relate to this poem and put themselves in the shoes of either the child or the mother, or both.

It’s an emotional piece meant to serve as a reminder of life’s difficulties as well as an inspiration for the strength required to persevere through them.

This article on mother to son poem by Langston Hughes explores every dimension of the poem. Keep reading this article to get a detailed analysis, summary, themes, and generally a better view of the mother to son poem.

Mother to Son

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 you sit 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.

By Langston Hughes

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Summary

The poem is a mother’s warning to her son about the stairs he must climb throughout his life. He must keep an eye out for splinters, broken boards, and tacks.

These things are there to throw him off balance. Furthermore, she explains that even if he becomes exhausted or desperate, he is not to turn around or sit down. She’s still stumbling up the stairs, and he’s not far behind.

Analysis of Mother to Son Poem

Lines 1-7

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

(…)

And places with no carpet on the floor—

Bare.

Hughes begins the first section of lines with the speaker addressing her son. “Well, son, here’s what I’ll tell you:” establishes the conversation as casual but important

She clearly has something important to tell him, and it won’t be easy. The main message that the mother wishes to convey to her son is that

Life for [her hasn’t] been no crystal stair.

She is contrasting her own life with one that is simple to navigate (or up). Moving forward represents a staircase with “tacks” and “splinters” protruding from the wood in her case.

The final lines add to the already painful and frightening staircase she has described. Some of the boards that remain on the stairs and the landings she will reach in the following lines do not have “carpet.”

Mother to Son Poem

Lines 8-13

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

(…)

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

Despite everything that has been said in the first seven lines, the speaker is still moving forward. She wants to make certain that her son learns this lesson above all else.

She inserts landings into the staircase to represent different stages of her life. These are places where the stairs may bend or she may be able to rest. She went ahead and turned the corner whenever she reached these “landin’s.”

The places she is forced to go are not only dark but there has never been any light there. This means she is either the first person to arrive or one of many who have passed through the same darkened corridors of life.

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Lines 14-20

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.

The speaker addresses her son directly again in the final stanza of ‘Mother to Son.’ She says “boy” to get his attention and make sure he’s still listening to her.

The mother tells her son that he cannot “turn back” no matter what he is going through now or in the future. Nothing down the stairs will assist one in overcoming an impending obstacle.

The speaker emphasizes in the final three lines that even though life is difficult, she will persevere. She is “still climbing” through the difficulties.

Structure and Form

Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son is a twenty-line poem contained within one stanza of text. Hughes wrote the poem in free verse.

This means that there is no rhyme or rhythm pattern. That is not to say that word choice is unimportant. They are, in fact, lyrical in nature.

Hughes’ suitable consideration of words that reflect a specific dialect and examples of half-rhyme all throughout the text demonstrates this.

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Themes

In terms of theme, the poem can be interpreted as emphasizing the value of experience and determination. As previously stated, the speaker is a woman speaking to her son.

She is attempting to describe his future life to him using the image of the staircase. No matter how dark or dangerous the stairs become, the mother must continue “climbing.”

Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, writing extensively about the oppression and racism that Black Americans face.

The speaker can be viewed as a generalized image of an African American mother attempting to explain the difficulties her black son will face as he ages.

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