The poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes is written in the form of an address of loving and caring mother to her child, with a warning about the hardships and turbulences of life. She relates how difficult and unforgiving life has been to her but she always went on struggling in the face of the toughest situations and the deepest grief. Sharing the wisdom she has acquired through her experience, the mother encourages her son not to give up either, whatever life might bring to him. In this moving and inspiring poem, Langston Hughes compares the painful and grievous experience of African American population to a decrepit wooden stair, contrasting it with the crystal stair of carefree life of the Whites in the beginning of the twentieth century.
The extended metaphor of the crystal stairs and the wooden stairs runs through the entire poem. The image of the crystal stair frames the poem as the words “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” sound both in the beginning and in the end. However, there is little explication of this image as it is immediately contrasted with the one of the dilapidated wooden stairs that the narrator unfolds in depth. By saying that this stair had “tacks in it,/ And splinters,/ And boards torn up”, the narrator reveals that her life was full of hardships and obstacles, while “places with no carpet on the floor/ – Bare” suggest poverty and destitution. On this stair, she had to climb, reach landings and turn corners, that is, to make strenuous efforts and even to escape from dangers. Sometimes she had to go “in the dark,/ Where there ain’t been no light”, which refers to the despair of hard losses, possibly deaths of close people.
The use of specific informal language suggests that the narrator represents the African American culture, which was the central subject of Langston Hughes’ creative work. Therefore, the poem refers to the oppression and suffering that African Americans were facing at that time. They had to struggle and survive in the face of constant humiliation but their will for life was incredibly strong. Moreover, the image of dilapidated stairs can be viewed as a reference to the poor and meager conditions of the tenement houses in ghetto neighborhoods where they had to live. In the pre-depression America, African Americans were lacking the most necessary things while the Whites could enjoy wealth and prestige, which is associated with the crystal stairs in the poem.
While the image of the crystal stairs is not expanded in the poem, it is obvious that it is a total opposite to the broken-down wooden stairs. The crystal stairs are smooth and brilliant, presenting no obstacles or dangers for a person. There is no need to climb it breathlessly or turn corners, so that the ascension to new heights is calm and delightful. This is exactly how the Whites of the highest socioeconomic class were accustomed to live, moving from one pleasure to another in soft swinging pace.
Staircase is often used symbolically in literature as it implies gradual ascension of a person to new spaces and dimensions, particularly spiritual dimensions. It conveys the meaning of leaving one’s troubles and hardships behind on the path to well-deserved repose and reward. Even though African Americans had to climb dangerous and rough stairs, they could hope for finding their peace at the top of it, while well-off Whites often felt anguish from their carefree ascension. The poem “Mother to Son” is a hymn to the perseverance of African Americans who never gave up in the hardest conditions they had to endure on the stairs of their life.