Mother To Son
By Langston Hughes
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
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.
Next are some interpretive questions for discussion in the classroom. FOR MY STUDENTS--GET A PARTNER, RECITE THE POEM TO EACH OTHER, AND THEN ANSWER OUR SEMINAR QUESTIONS.
1) Does the mother give words of wisdom, or is she stating the obvious? Doesn't everyone already know that life can be hard?
2) How old is this son? Don't give a range (that's too easy)--give a specific age.
3) The mother uses improper grammar and drops endings from words--why should anyone take the mother seriously if she can't speak properly? She seems to say "don't give up" to her son, but does the poem imply that the mother gave up on school? (NOTE: I am trying to get students to think. One person on youtube said I was "racist" just by asking such questions, but students have the freedom to argue that the bad grammar does not detract from the message, and they have the freedom to argue that we must take history into account.)
4) The mother says, "Don't you set down on the steps." Why can't the son rest? Why not sit down for five minutes before continuing to climb?
5) Why is the word "Bare" given its own line?
6) Is the mother implying that a "crystal stair" is desirable? Staircases are never made of glass--foolish idea, right?
7) "Wise" or "bossy"--which word is more accurate for this mother? Would her words be more effective if the tone were less bossy, or is her tone perfect for this moment? This type of poem is called a "dramatic monologue," but is there too much "monologue" here in the sense that the mother doesn't allow the boy to speak? Is this a lecture?
8) Does the mother say anything ENCOURAGING? Does she ever say light is at the end of the tunnel? Does she imply things will improve if the boy keeps climbing? Will the boy be rewarded if he continues?
9) Or does the poem imply that life for the mother has been a constant struggle, with no rewards to offset the tacks and going in the dark?
"Mother to Son" -- some evaluative questions:
1) Could this poem be shaped into a sonnet and still work, or is free verse needed for the poem?
2) If your mother said the poem's words to you at the dinner table tonight, would you appreciate these words or roll your eyes at some point?
3) The poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley likewise has a message about not giving up. Which poem is better?
"Mother to Son" is another product of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance means an explosion among the arts--poems, paintings, music, novels--produced by African Americans.
It started around World War I and ended in the 1930s, but the 1920s was its heyday.
This is free verse. It does not have a sonnet structure. It does not rhyme. It has no regular rhythm like iambic.
I like the way “bare” stands alone in one line. The word “bare” is bare--or the line is bare.
This poem is a great example of a dramatic monologue. The poet created a character--it is not the poet speaking for himself.
It is almost as if a boy had earlier said, "Life should be a crystal staircase," and this poem is the mother's response. The problem is that no boy would ever say life should be a crystal staircase!
Maybe the boy said, "Life is rough," and the mother is the one who made up the glass stair metaphor.
I do marvel that the mother never promises that life will be better in the future. She only says to keep going. Don't expect rewards!