The purpose of the Langston Hughes poem "Mother to Son" is to illustrate, through narrative, the difficulties that previous generations of black people have endured, sometimes as a sacrifice to ensure a better future for the next generation.
It is significant that Hughes chooses to make the narrator of the poem a black woman. This device shifts the reader away from the convention of a father passing down life's lessons to a son, while also centralizing the often neglected struggles of black women in a racist system.
In the first line, the mother makes it clear that, though she is a woman, she has never been placed on a pedestal: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." She narrates a story of struggle, characterized by the "splinters," "tacks," and other obstructions that have hurt her as she labored on. However, she remained resilient:
But all the time
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.
The mother's purpose in telling her son this is to motivate him to endure, even when life becomes unbearably difficult:
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.