[In the essay below, Wasley explores Hughes's dramatic monologue “Mother to Son,” positioning it within the context of African–American culture and traditions and linking the character of the mother with the voice of African-American history.]
“Mother to Son,” one of Langston Hughes's earliest poems, takes the form of a dramatic monologue; that is, a poem spoken not in the poet's own voice but in that of a particular imagined speaker, in this case a weary mother addressing her son. The son, as we can surmise from the first line, has either asked his mother a question or complained of his frustrations, to which his mother responds, “Well, son, I'll tell you.” She proceeds to recount for her son the difficulties of her own life, telling him “Life for me ain't been no crystal stair,” yet suggesting to him that those difficulties are, if not ultimately surmountable, at least worth struggling against:
The poem's use of the dramatic monologue places the reader in the position of the son, listening to his mother draw a lesson from her life that can be applied to his own. The reader is thus drawn into the poem, as the son's frustrations become our own, and the mother's advice becomes directed at us. The identification with the speaker and the listener which the poem forces upon the reader encourages us to look for ways in which this poem can be seen to address issues beyond the apparently simple scene it depicts, and raises questions about the poet's strategies for communicating those concerns.
Hughes, who wrote this poem when he was 21, was—obviously— neither an old woman, nor, as a college-educated intellectual, did he speak or write in the dialect in which the mother's thoughts are expressed. What then are the implications of this imaginative projection? Why would the young, highly-educated African-American poet imagine himself speaking in the voice of an old woman talking about the troubles of her life to her son? What might this old woman symbolize?
In another famous Hughes poem, entitled “The Negro Mother,” we find a similar speaker in a similar dramatic situation, as the title character addresses her African-American sons and daughters:
In “The Negro Mother,” which was written some years after ”Mother to Son,” the speaker also tells her children about the “dark” and difficult “climb” she has faced in her life, and suggests that her struggles will make those of her children easier to bear. But in the later poem, Hughes makes explicit the connection between the speaker and larger issues of African- American culture, as the figure of “The Negro Mother” comes to be seen not simply as an old woman talking to her children, but as, in some sense, the voice of African-American history itself, recounting its arduous struggle “that the race might live and grow.” In the same way, we can see the speaker of ”Mother to Son” as representing a kind of collective voice, the voice of the generations of African-Americans whose troubled history—from the slave-ships, to the plantations, to Reconstruction, to the Great Migration to the urban North—“ain't been no crystal stair.”
The speaker equates the history of African-Americans with an endless flight of broken-down stairs, such as might be found in the the cramped and crumbling tenements in which many poor blacks found themselves forced to live in the ghetto neighborhoods of the northern cities. Yet no matter how frustrating or tiring the climb, no matter how many setbacks she has suffered, she says, “I'se been a-climbin' on.” The future of blacks in America, she suggests to her son and to the reader, depends on this willingness to keep climbing, to not turn back, to not “set down on the steps / 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.” We're not at the top of the stairs yet, she tells us, and we may feel like giving up, but it is only by continuing to climb that, in the words of the traditional African-American spiritual, “We shall overcome someday.”
The roots of Hughes's poetry run deep into the tradition of African-American music, especially spirituals, jazz, and blues. The title of Hughes's first book, in which ”Mother to Son” was published, was The Weary Blues, and throughout his career he proved an innovator in adapting the forms and motifs of the blues—with its heavy beats, recurrent refrains, and melancholy narratives—and the improvisitory riffs and earthy themes of jazz, to poetry. While ”Mother to Son” shows the influence of Hughes's interest in the blues, especially in its use of repetition and of the idiomatic dialect in which most blues songs were sung (though Hughes also found ample precedent for his use of dialect in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who gained fame at the turn of the century as the “Bard of the Negro Race” through his colorful verse written in rural black patois), it lies most directly within the tradition of the spiritual, a connection which is made clear through the central image of the poem, the “crystal stair.”
In this image we hear an echo of the Biblical story of Jacob's Ladder (Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-22), in which Jacob sees in a dream a vision of a celestial stairway upon which angels climb and descend between earth and heaven. In the dream God tells Jacob, “This land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants [and] they will be as countless as the dust of the earth.” That land would become Israel and Jacob's sons, the Israelites. This story held an abiding significance within the African-American Christian tradition—especially in the pre- Civil-War slave-holding South—as it spoke to a faith that, like the Israelites, black Americans too would be delivered to a “Promised Land.” The heavenly stairway became a powerful image of liberation and salvation, attainable only through suffering and faith in God. Hughes, along with most African-Americans of his time, would have been very familiar with the associations of Jacob's Ladder with the struggle for freedom and equality of blacks in America, especially in its expression in one of the best-known traditional spirituals, “We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder.” This song, which would have been sung first in the fields and later in churches, involves a call-and-response between a singer and a chorus not unlike the relationship of Hughes's mother and son. It speaks of climbing “higher and higher” to become “soldiers of the Lord,” includes the exhortation “Keep on climbing, we will make it,” and ends with the question, “Children do you want your freedom?”
In this light, it becomes easy to see Hughes's mother figure as something like a racial matriarch addressing her scattered children and exhorting them to “keep on climbing” on their way to freedom. It also shows us how Hughes uses a single image, the “crystal stair,” to evoke simultaneously the painful history of blacks in America while pointing to the tradition of faith and hope that has sustained them through it all.
But there is, perhaps, yet another way of reading this poem. In the history of poetry, poets have often included representations in their poems of their “muse.” The idea of a poet's muse is based on the notion within Greek mythology of the Nine Muses—sister-goddesses who were responsible for inspiring all the different arts. The figure of the muse—what we might call the personification of the poet's inspiration—is usually represented as a woman to whom the poet gives credit for his or her power to write. It is not uncommon—at least until the twentieth century—for poets to include invocations to or by the muse in their poetry, as in the case of the the sixteenth-century poet Sir Philip Sidney, whose muse, at the beginning of a long sequence of poems called “Astrophil and Stella,” famously tells him, “Look in thy heart and write.” In this context, we might read the mother in Hughes's poem not only as a representation of African-American history, but also as a kind of muse-figure.
Hughes was just beginning his career as a poet when he wrote this poem, so questions of what to write about and how best to forge his poetic voice and identity would be pressing issues for him. Would he strive to represent his race in poetry, and be a self-consciously black poet, or would he reject a racial poetic identity, as poets like Countee Cullen would try to do? Would he look to his African-American cultural heritage for inspiration, or was the black American experience, and its tradition of artistic expression, somehow outside the conventional boundaries of poetry? These were difficult questions for the young writer, and if we read ”Mother to Son” in terms of these concerns, we see the poet struggling to come to terms with them. In this context, the “son” of the title becomes not the reader, but the poet himself, and the poem suggests that the son's frustration and despair is that of the poet, faced with the impossible task of writing poetry that truly speaks to and for the African-American experience. The poet—the “son” of African- American history and its artistic legacy of spirituals, blues, and jazz—looks to his “mother” for advice and the strength to keep going. Her response is stern, yet supportive: “So boy, don't you turn back. / Don't you sit down on the steps / 'Cause you finds it kinder hard.” The task he has before him is an arduous one, she says, but it is an important and necessary one. African-American culture and history keeps moving and it is his job as poet to record it; she's “still climbin'” and he has to keep step.
The poet's “mother,” who speaks in the voice of the African- American tradition, teaches him he need not abandon that tradition in order to write poetry. All poetry, she says, need not be about “crystal stairs.” It can have “tacks” and “splinters” in it, “and places with no carpet on the floor.” It need not conform to white conventions in either form or subject—it can be “bare“—yet it need not ignore those conventions if they can be of use (In fact, the line, “And life for me ain't been no crystal stair” is written in iambic pentameter, the most traditional of English poetic meters). The poet discovers, from listening to his mother-muse, a way to bring the African-American experience into poetry. He finds a way to move forward, to keep climbing. We can read in this poem, then, a kind of metaphor for the young poet's artistic coming of age. From his “mother” he learns the value and power of his vocation. He hears in her song his own voice.