Poem #42: Mother to Son by Langston Hughes

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

Title: Mother to Son

Langston Hughes

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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—
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 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.


It's hard to read this poem and not wonder if this was a message Hughes received directly from his mother or a motherly figure in his life. That's not to say it could not have come originally from Hughes himself but such poems invite speculation.  

It's also one of those short poems that packs so much into it.  I love how the speaker frames the "crystal stair" and then contrasts it vividly with the staircase she travels. While it's so easy to picture a "crystal stair", we get the sense that her staircase could include a great many more details that capture her experience, but she's just giving us the gist.  

Then, there's the message from mother to son that this is their staircase to climb and there's no point in resisting it. They are ascending so maybe that is what hints at reward or possibility.  It's an interesting command for the son to keep going because the mother doesn't offer any other possibility of reward or that it may get better.  Rather, she simply says that she's been doing it all her life and that so too must he. And it doesn't come off as the traditional "I did this, so you should be able to as well" but rather, it feels more like a sense of this is what they must face and there's no other way to go. The tone of the poem feels more like the kinship of experience than it does as a judgment, even though the mother chides the son for finding it "kinder hard."

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.