In the poem, whom is the speaker addressing and what about?

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The speaker in “Mother to Son” is, unsurprisingly, a mother addressing her son. She begins by telling him about her life, using the metaphor of a flight of stairs. Her life has not been a crystal stair. On the contrary, she lists all the impediments she has had to negotiate: tacks, splinters, bare uncarpeted places; all kinds of roughness, obstacles, and squalid difficulties, at variance with a smooth and polished path. None of these, however, has ever stopped her from progressing, reaching landings and turning corners, even when she has had to climb in the dark.

Up to this point, the mother has been describing her own progress onward and upward through life. The moral lessons for her son are all implicit. Now, however, in the middle of the poem, with longer, more even lines, she addresses and exhorts him directly. He should not turn back or even sit down to rest when he finds things too hard. She is still going, and this should inspire him to keep going too. She ends up repeating her initial assertion:

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

The way has been hard, but she has never stopped climbing the stairs and has made consistent progress, perhaps just as consistent as if the stairs had been crystal. The impulse to communicate to her son how hard her life has been is succeeded by her didactic impulse to instruct him to profit by her example.

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