Thanks to the increased urbanization brought on by a growing industrial revolution and the subsequent bringing together of many of the country’s African American citizens, primarily within the region of New York City known as Harlem, a great artistic movement began to take root. The Harlem Renaissance, a period spanning roughly the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, is frequently referred to as a literary movement, but the movement also encompassed a great explosion of African-American expression in many venues that celebrated the unique heritage, art forms, sights, and sounds that were the African-American experience. One of the literary artists that gained the most recognition during this period was Langston Hughes. Hughes came into his professional years just as the Harlem Renaissance was becoming recognized on a more national scale and had the courage to both take inspiration from and yet disagree with his mentors such as W.E.B. DuBois by writing about the positive and negative aspects of black life. Some of the major themes of his life can be seen in his poetry including “Mother to Son” depicting through the character of the mother some of the challenges black people have faced.
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Rather than attempting to ‘make friends’ with the white man in hopes of gaining sympathy, the struggles of overcoming slavery and battling blatant oppression are not allowed to go unnoticed within Hughes’ poetry, as is illustrated in “Mother to Son.” In this poem, Hughes employs a metaphor to depict a mother as she explains to her son that her own path through life “ain’t been no crystal stair” (2). As she tells her son about the path she’s walked, the mother illustrates how it has been scattered with numerous hazards that one would immediately recognize as dangerous within the context of a never-ending stairway up. This imagery includes “splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor” (4-6). The character’s language paints a very real picture of an old and dangerous stairway that provides little in the way of support and is constantly threatening harm. The details such as splinters force one to think of sudden sharp pains in unexpected places while the torn-up boards introduce ideas of sudden instability and lean times. The road of life has not been full of comfort either, as the carpet is thin or even missing from entire segments, but still, the older woman continued to climb, “And reachin’ landin’s, / And turnin’ corners, / And sometimes goin’ in the dark” (10-12). The life depicted thus provides few safe havens in the form of ‘landin’s’, if all the boards are in place, but more frequently prove difficult in their own way as they introduce corners and sections that must be navigated completely in ignorance. Picturing trying to climb this twisting stairway, it is easy to see how this life has been littered with all kinds of difficult trials and tribulations but also sprinkled with comfort in the idea that the floor was covered with carpet sometimes and rest in the concept that she came across landings sometimes.
The language used by the old woman further supports the concept that her life has not been easy as it is full of ignorant slang, what was termed the ‘black dialect’ because of its unschooled nature, but despite this, she has attained deep wisdom and strong faith in herself. It isn’t until roughly the last quarter of the poem that it becomes clear that this is a mother trying to encourage her son to continue to struggle for something better than she’s ever experienced: “So, boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps, / ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard” (14-16). Her words may not be polished, but her wisdom is true as she realizes how easy it is to give up under the tremendous pressure of life as a black man (or woman in her case) by simply allowing oneself to sit down or take a break. Although she knows the climb he’s making is not easy, she is telling him that she is able to understand because she has had to follow a difficult path as well, perhaps one darker and more dangerous for the particular circumstances she faced. As she illustrates to him the various hardships she’s had to endure as she climbed the stairway of life, she is also letting him know that at the least, he is starting from a higher point than the place where she started. “For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (18-20). Despite the hardships, the mother is telling the son that she’s stronger for her trials and she is still fighting to find something better for herself and for her descendants by encouraging him to continue climbing upward and never give up.
Through the imagery and word choice of the mother, Hughes is able to convey the great depth of human understanding that was a natural part of his culture and heritage through the preservation of the rich and expressive language of his people. Langston Hughes demonstrates how deep and multi-meaningful connections can be made within the very short context of a poem. That this brilliance has only recently come to the attention of the modern world is, perhaps, a crime. Yet, had Hughes opted not to retain the dialect of characters such as this mother, this element of his society may have escaped the modern world’s notice, forever burying the spirit and depth of the culture beneath the stilted and limited language of the white European conventions.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Classics, 1995.