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Analysis of ‘Mother To Son’ by Langston Hughes

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Mother To Son

James Mercer Langston Hughes(February 1, 1902[1] – May 22, 1967), popularly known as Langston Hughes was an American poet who shot to fame very early in life. He stood for the disadvantaged and was a big influence on the African American poets. He was a social activist, a playwright, a novelist and a columnist. The poem ‘Mother to Son’ was written when he was 21 years old. It is a popular monologue of Hughes. The mother is giving advice to his son and tells him how life would be but a person should never give up. Through this advice to her son she also portrays the life of the African Americans of the early 20th century.

Mother is addressing her son and tells him that life was not easy for her. It was an uphill task indicated by the use of the word ‘stair’. A staircase in those days was made of wood and that staircase had nails and splinters and in some places the boards were torn. She is telling her son that life threw up many problems. There was no carpet on the floor meaning there was no cushioning factor in her life; her life was bare, uphill and full of problems.

The mother was one not to be cowed down by all this and she kept climbing all the time. In the climb there were some landings and some turnings. Somewhere amidst the problems there was some smooth times and some turning points in her life. At other times there were no lights in her dark path but she kept going on. She advices her son to keep going and not to step down even though the path was hard. Mother warns him not to fall and asks him to look at her. She was still going, she was still climbing, life had not become any easier for her after so many years. So she continues to struggle.

‘Mother to son’ is a monologue; advice given by the mother to the child. There are twenty lines and it is a free verse. It has a conversational tone and the language native to African American is used. Since the mother belongs to an older generation the poet must have thought it fit to use those words. The refrain used in the poem is ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair’. The strong imagery created is that of a staircase. It is also an extended metaphor.  Life is compared to wooden stair case and the ‘tacks, splinters, torn boards’ are the problems in life. The tacks and splinters can make you bleed while the torn board can trip you. There will be problems in life which bleeds the heart and at times we might fall. During all these times we need to gather ourselves and keep moving forward. ‘The word ‘carpet’ is used to talk about the cushioning factor of lie. Some relief imagery are the ‘landings and turning corners’. The poet calls the stair ‘crystal stair’ which is an allusion to the Jacob’s stair in the Old Testament in the Bible. This poem and the poem ‘Dreams’ by Hughes is considered to have the same theme which is to keep going despite the hardships in life.