The central symbols of the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes are the ideal "crystal stair" and the contrasting rickety staircase which the mother says she has actually had to ascend and which her son must also learn to climb. The crystal stair is mentioned but not described, and it is an ideal because it does not correspond to anything in real life, since staircases are not made of crystal. The reality, however, is described in some detail: it is a staircase with tacks and splinters sticking out and boards torn up, lacking carpet in places. This is a journey that has sometimes been painful and always uneven, though the speaker has been able to continue climbing upwards, despite the difficulties.
The poem also contains the symbolism of light and darkness. The mother says that she has sometimes had to turn round corners, for the staircase does not lead straight ahead:
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
It is dangerous to climb a staircase in the dark. The light, therefore, stands for safety and certainty, as well as hope. It is one of the main properties of crystal, that it sparkles in light and reflects it. The real staircase, however, is often plunged into darkness, and this darkness covers a multitude of dubious, difficult choices, as well as being dangerous.