Mother to Son is a song written by Langston Hughes in 1922 during the Harlem Renaissance, the most significant art movement in black literature in the US, when African Americans and intellectuals related to black culture evolved, highlighting the ups and downs of African Americans and combat against racism in their literature.
During this great culture revolution era, African Americans finally got the chance to thrive, among which is the song, Mother to son, comprised of the monologue of an African American mother whose life was surrounded by misery encouraged her son to follow her, be optimistic and overcome all the hardships and surmount all the obstacles in life. The three main themes in the song are hardships, courage, and the role of a mother, and these are highlighted by Hughes through the song’s form and literary devices.
In the poem, Hughes highlights the inevitable hardship dealt in any individual’s life. The idea is shown by the use of symbolism and anaphora. The speaker mentioned the “crystal stair” at both the outset and the end of the song.
The crystal stairs symbolize the comforting life style, which the mother does not possess. This very idea is repeated in the close line when the speaker says
”and life for me ain’t been no crystal stairs”. using the same symbols at the beginning and closing lines, the speaker depicts a vivid image that African Americans are far away from obtaining the American life style no matter how hard they try, the beginning circles back to the ending. The technique of anaphora is used when the speaker repeats: “And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor—” The word “and” is repeatedly used at the start of each line, highlighting the adversities and various challenges in the life of the mother, each “and” introduces a new impediment, highlighting the never-ending sufferings in the mother’s life journey, as well as the hundreds of thousands of African American.
The song is written in free verse, without a particular rhyme scheme, stanza pattern or rules in the length of its lines. This could be a possible implication of the theme of courage. When one is courageous, with its perseverance, one could persistently break through all the difficulties hindering, restricting it from moving forward. Under the background of the song, the difficulties here could be implying poor living conditions, the “tacks”, the “splinters”, the “boards torn up”, the “places with no carpet on the floor”, but on a higher level, referring to racism, discrimination and inequality that are faced by African Americans in the early twentieth century. The theme of courage suggested by the free style of the song could be the fight against the dark elements and dangerous situations. It is the determination that the less privileged classes need in order to survive and achieve their goals.
Moreover, the poem presents the mother as a role model for the child. The mother and her son seem to be strongly bonded. The mother uses her life experiences to point the correct directions for her son and intends to prepare her son mentally ready for life, leading her son to a better future and to become a better individual.
As a conclusion, through a monologue of a representative African American mother in the song, the speaker has effectively reflects the situation of African Americans and their difficult fight against discrimination and racism. It plays a key role in the artistic movement in Harlem during the 1920s.