This poem from Langston Hughes is a really good evocation of human hope, aspiration, the passing on of values, all positive aspects of human experience, but the context is a reminder that poverty is all around us and the struggles of the poor make everything in their lives difficult and complicated. I like it that poetry can take on questions like this and make an impact on us all to at least open our eyes and be aware of other people’s poverty and struggle.
The poem is in the form of a mother talking to her son about life, what she has experienced and what to expect.
Mother To Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
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.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
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.
The metaphor for life is climbing the stairs, which works pretty well. The mother has never climbed a crystal stair – she is in a completely different world from the one-per-cent. The stairs of her life have been rickety, a bit dangerous, precarious, shabby. There are few options for the poor. But she has a message of hope – she never stopped climbing that stair, difficult as it was. And this is the message that she wants to pass on to her son – never stop climbing, never stop trying, striving for something better. Keep in school, stay out of trouble, get a job, claw your way up the stair and you can get closer to a more comfortable life. For the mother it is probably too late, but she is transferring her hopes and dreams to her son and exhorting him to carry on the struggle.
Powerful stuff…Maybe some parallels here with Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” if you wanted to make an existentialist reading of this poem.
The Poetry Dude