When life becomes challenging, does the speaker give up? How do you know?

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Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” is an inspirational poem in which a mother imparts an important life lesson to her grown son, but this lesson works on two distinct levels. One is a universal level in which the mother, the speaker in the poem, delivers universal wisdom to her son, as we can infer when she says she has been “goin’ in the dark” of life “where there ain’t been no light.” The mother has had a complex life, with many twists and turns, yet she has walked on, never giving up. Despite having a life far from perfect, she has persevered in the face of adversity, and so must the son. This is a good lesson for any child to learn.

At the other level however, the poem is rooted in a specific context: it is an African-American mother speaking to her son. Her refusal to give up in the face of life’s challenges gains a double impetus in this reading of the poem. Now we move in from the general to the particular and begin to pay attention to the poem’s language,...

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