Langston Hughes

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What is the symbolism in the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes?

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"Mother to Son" uses the conceit, or extended metaphor, of a staircase to symbolize the hardship of the mother's life. Her metaphorical "staircase" has made for difficult climbing—it has exposed tacks, splinters, gaps, and places where the carpet is completely worn down. This is contrasted with a crystal staircase in the famous line "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." A crystal staircase symbolizes an easy, affluent, sparkling life, while the rickety staircase the mother speaks of symbolize a difficult one.


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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The poem's main symbol is the rough staircase the mother climbs every day. It has, according to her:

tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor
She contrasts is to a beautiful stairway, saying repeatedly that "it ain't . . . no crystal stair." Nevertheless, the mother emphasizes that she keeps on climbing up and down this staircase and advises her son to do the same. She says to him:
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
The staircase the mother climbs up and down determinedly is an allusion to the stairway to heaven in the Bible. For a Biblically literate audience, which is what Hughes could assume his black readership to be, the echoes behind the mother's words would resonate as a call to freedom. Let's look at the story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28: 12-15 and read this biblical story in the context of the mother's words:

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring."

In this context, the stairway takes on a new resonance that breathes hope, promise, and aspiration into the black people, who, like the oppressed ancient Israelites, are God's beloved children. No matter how dreary and splintered her staircase is, the mother is seeing herself as one of God's angels ascending and descending it and wants her son to be on that staircase so that he too will receive God's blessing.

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Kelvin Brakus eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "Mother to Son ," Hughes uses a number of symbols. First of all, in lines four to six, the "splinters," torn-up...

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