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Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” and “Cross” Essay

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Updated: Dec 7th, 2021

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Langston Hughes wrote many pomes on a wide range of topics. This paper contrasts two of the prominent poems by Hughes, Mother to Son and Cross. Both poems are written about the relationships between children and parents; however, Mother to Son poem is written from mother’s perspective while Cross is written in form of a monologue of a son. In addition to similar theme, the poems are rather different in their meaning. In Mother to Son poem Hughes explores the difficulties of being a mother, most likely a single one, who devoted to her life to taking care of her son. In Cross Hughes focused his attention on lack of understanding between parents and their children. The poems are comparable in their themes but the raised issued are addressed from opposing perspective. This paper presents contrast analysis on Mother to Son and Cross with the focus on three aspects: son-mother relationships, difficulties of life, and mutual understanding. While both poems address these issues, Hughes adapts absolutely different approaches for each poem.

The first theme to explore is presentation of son-mother relationships in poems Mother to Son and Cross. The title Mother to Son suggests that the poem is written from mother’s perspective. In the opening lines, Hughes writes,

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.

In these lines, the reader gets a clear picture of a woman, a mother whose life has been a real challenge. Evidently, the son of this woman is frustrated or dissatisfied with something while his mother is trying to explain him that life is not always easy and that she had to go through many challenges. She gives her son a recommendation not to turn back and not to give up. Mother to Son poem is an encouragement given by mother to her son who has encountered some difficulties in his life. Cross, on the other side, explores another facet of son-mother relationships. The Cross covers wider theme of parent-children relationships. For example, Hughes writes,

My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black

Evidently, the speaker (the son) struggles with his own racial identity because his parents belonged to different races: his father was white while his mother was black. The symbolic title of the poem, Cross, is probably the resemblance of Jesus Christ and the cross he had to carry. Similar to Jesus Christ, the speaker of the poem had to carry his own cross – quest for his own identity. Unlike Mother to Son, Cross is more philosophical and there is no frustration. Even though both poems deal with the theme of son-mother relationships, Cross has a deeper meaning because it explores the theme of identity within the family relationships.

The second theme is difficulties or challenges of life. As it was noted in the previous paragraph, Mother to Son poem covers the difficult life of a single mother who tried hard to provide her son with all necessities. It is important to add that the son is emotionally weaker than his mother due to his young age and lack of life experience. Hughes writes,

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.

Thus, despite of all difficulties, the woman did not give up; she remained optimistic and worked toward her goal. It was not easy as she had to climb on ‘reachin’ landin’s and turnin’ corners’. Woman’s persistence and hardworking gave her a chance to survive with her child. The child, however, is not willing to work equally hard and he is frustrated with his life. The poem Cross, on the contrary, explores absolutely different aspect of difficulties. The speaker did not encounter financial challenges, at least poor life is not the focus of the poem, but rather had to overcome the social stigma, the attitude of society as well as his own self-image of being a son of a black woman and a white man. Ironically, the speaker realizes being wrong only after the death of his parents. He cursed them because of his mixed race but he forgave them:

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish

Even though by the end of the poem the speaker has not decided on his identity yet and his challenges are still present in his life, there is no anger in his soul anymore. Therefore, Cross presents the inner challenge of a young person who struggles to find his own identity but he cannot accept being neither black nor white. Mother to Son, on the other side, is devoted to everyday life of a single mother whose concerns are mostly related to providing for the needs of her child.

The third theme for contrast is mutual understanding. Mother to Son poem reveals that there is lack of understanding between the mother and her son. The son does not want to accept all hardships his mother had to overcome as a single parent. Probably, the son is a teenager because his mother asks his not to turn away from her. While there is lack of understanding from the son’s side, the mother appears to be loving and respecting. She tells her son that life is not easy and there are many challenges. She gives him an advice to work hard and look into the future rather than be obsessed with challenging. She notes that there are many challenges and yet hard work is the only way to overcome them. The Cross poem shows that there was lack of mutual understanding between the speaker and his parents in the past, when he was a teenager or a young adult, while the misunderstanding disappeared when the parents died and he realized that it was nobody’s fault. Unfortunately, understanding comes only after the death of the parents. Hughes suggests that the parents of the speaker separated because the old man died in a “fine big house” while the mother died “in a shack”. However, the speaker refers to both parents with equal respect and forgiveness. He understands that their lives were not easy as well because of racial prejudices. Nevertheless, the newly appeared understanding does not solve the inner dilemma of the speaker nor it gives him a chance to express his respect to his parents as both of them have died.

In conclusion, Hughes explored three related themes in the poems Cross and Mother to Son; however, he has skillfully approached these themes from absolutely different perspectives. The theme of son-mother relationships is explored through the eyes of the mother in the poem Mother to Son but through the eyes of son in the poem Cross. The issue of life difficulties is more fully covered in the poem Mother to Son while the speaker in the poem Cross did not feel the support of his parents in his struggle with identity. Finally, the son does not appear to understand the challenging his mother had to overcome in the poem Mother to Son; however, the speaker in the poem Cross has forgiven his parents even though the understanding came too late to change anything in his life.

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