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The Structure of Langston Hughes' Poem Mother to Son

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Langston Hughes’s poem ‘Mother to Son’ is a poem everyone should read at least a few times throughout their life. Although it’s short it sends a powerful message. The poem was written by Langston Hughes. Langston was born on February 1, 1902 and started writing as a teen. His work started getting popular during the Harlem Renaissance, which started around the same time as his graduation from high school. Langston lived in a time where being black was hard. His grandparents were likely slaves. Even though slavery had been abolished, there was still a lot of racism. During this time black people were trying to fight for their rights and express themselves through an artistic movement called the Harlem Renaissance.

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The poem ‘Mother to Son’ was written by Langston Hughes but the speaker in the poem is a woman, most likely an African-American woman, talking to her son. What leads me to believe that the speaker is an African-American woman is her use of improper English, which is very common among poor African-Americans. The speaker uses words like I’se and ain’t. (Hughes 19; Hughes 20) And also the time and by whom the poem was written. Langston is a black man with a black mother who has definitely faced many hardships in life because of her skin color, so that is probably what sparked the creation of the poem and thus makes it most likely that the ethnicity of the mother in the poem is African-American.

The mother tells us how her life hasn’t been easy. She expresses her thoughts on her life by making a metaphor saying her life ain’t no crystal stair.(Hughes 2) This is an extended metaphor that goes on for the entire poem. I think the idea of climbing a staircase is an allusion to the staircase to heaven. That would make sense because the intended audience would be composed of mostly biblically literate African-Americans. A story in the bible talks about how Jacob saw a staircase from earth to heaven with God at the top and angels ascending on it. (New International Version Bible, Genesis 28:10-17) This adds a new reason for the mother to urge her son to keep on climbing the staircase. She says ‘So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.’ (Hughes 14-16) She wants her son to be blessed and make it to heaven but if he doesn’t climb the staircase to heaven of course then he won’t get in.

In the poem, the mother describes to her son, the staircase she had to climb, and is still climbing. She says the stair has had tacks in it and splinters and sometimes boards torn up as well as places with no carpet at all. (Hughes 3-7) The tacks and splinters most likely represent all the dangers and pain she has had to endure in life. The missing boards could represent lack of support or times when it wasn’t clear what she should do next. The places without carpet could represent discomfort or just general poor qualities in life. Despite this, the speaker keeps on climbing. (Hughes 8-9) Next she describes what her journey on the metaphorical stairs of life was like. She says there were landings and corners she turned. And places without light, places where there never has been any light. (Hughes 9-13) Based on all that, we can tell she has had a really tough life, yet she still keeps going. She then says ‘so boy,’ to get his attention. (Hughes 14) This is a very important message she’s trying to tell him about how life is going to be for him. She tells him not to turn back or set down on the steps when things are getting harder and most importantly not to fall. (Hughes 14-17) She tells him ‘ For I’se still goin’,honey, I’se still climbin’,honey, and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.'(Hughes 18-20) She wants her son to follow in her foot steps. That could’ve been another motivation for her to keep going and staying strong.

The poem is written in free verse and with no formal rhyme scheme. This was most likely done so the poem can mimic an actual conversation. There is alliteration, enjambment, colloquialism, and anaphora in the poem. Alliteration is used to bring attention to certain parts of the poem. One use of alliteration is in lines 7-9 ‘Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on.'(Hughes 7-9) The repetition of the B sound brings attention to this part of the poem. Hughes put alliteration here because this is an important part of the poem. It stresses that despite the hardships the mother keeps on going, which is one of the main points the mother uses to persuade her son to also keep going. Another example of alliteration is in lines 14-15 ‘So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps’. (Hughes 14-15) Here both the D sound and S sound are repeated. I think Hughes made sure that this part of the poem alliterated because these two lines pretty much tell us the message that the mother is trying to tell her son. Now let’s examine the use of anaphora in the poem. For starters, Langston repeats the word ‘and’ a lot at the beginning of sentences. This makes the speech drag on but it makes it sound more like an actual conversation. People do tend to use the word ‘and’ a lot in non- formal speech. The repetition of the sentence ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair’ at the beginning and end of the poem helps stress one of the key points in the poem, which is that the speakers life has been rather difficult unlike a crystal stair. (Hughes 2 and 20) Langston also uses enjambment to help the poem sound more like a conversation. Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence, without any pause beyond the verse. (“Enjambment”)

One example of use of enjambment in the poem is verses 15-16. “Don’t you set down on the steps ‘Cause you find it’s kinder harder.” (Hughes 15-16) And finally the most used literary device in this poem, colloquialism. It’s used in almost every sentence after verse 7. Colloquialism is the use of improper language to make a text sound more like a conversation. Examples of colloquialism are the use of words like “I’se” and “Ain’t.”

Word choice in literature is really important so let’s examine the words Langston decided to use in his poem. At the beginning of the poem, the mother says ‘Well, son, I’ll tell you:’ (Hughes 1) Use of the ‘Well’ at the beginning of the sentence makes it sound like the mother is answering a question. And the use of the word ‘son’ tells us that the mother is talking to someone, her son. The mother using the word ‘son’ instead of his name creates a more affectionate tone. The use of the word “son” also makes the poem easier to relate to because using generic words makes the poem universal. The mother and son could be any mother or son. In the next verse, Langston uses the phrase “ain’t been.” This is where colloquialism is first used in the poem and it can help us determine what kind of person the speaker is. In verses 3 to 6, every verse begins with the word “And”. (Hughes 3-6) As mentioned before, using the word “and” so many times creates a run-on sentence but also makes the poem sound more like an actual conversation. Verse seven is just one word, “Bare.” (Hughes 7) Putting this word by itself puts extra stress and emphasis on it. In verses 8-9 use of improper language continues. In verses 10-12, each sentence begins with the word “and.”(Hughes 10-12) As we discussed previously this continues to make the poem more like a conversation. In verse 12, the mother says sometimes she goes in the dark. In verse 13 she says it’s a place “where there ain’t been no light.” (Hughes 12-13) Saying that there hasn’t been any light in the place ever makes it sound more scary and makes the darkness more intense. In the beginning of verse 14 she says “So boy” to get his attention. (Hughes 14) Calling him boy instead of by his name makes the tone more serious. In verses 15-17 she basically tells her son not to give up. (Hughes 15-17) In verses 16-18 she states her reason as to why she thinks that her son should not give up. She thinks her son should not give up because she’s still going and life for her ain’t been no crystal stair. 

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