The Stairway Of The African American Experience Literature Review Sample

Type of paper: Literature Review

Topic: Family, Poetry, America, Literature, Women, Parents, Mother, African American

Pages: 3

Words: 825

Published: 2020/12/14

Langston Hughes was a profoundly talented African American poet who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. He was only twenty-one years old when he wrote the poem “Mother to Son”. Even at a young age Hughes was able to use a simple exchange between a mother and son to convey a much deeper meaning. Through the use of imagery and metaphor Hughes eloquently paints a portrait of the struggles African-Americans have overcome throughout the history of the United States and the commitment to perseverance members of that race will need to survive.
The poem begins with a mother who has the intention of sharing some hard won wisdom with her son: “Well, son I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (1-2). While this opening is literally a mother talking to her son, figuratively it is the older generation of African-Americans providing guidance to the young. Hughes uses “crystal stair” as a metaphor for the journey of life. In the first half of the twentieth century many black Americans struggled significantly through life, their life journey did not have the ease of traveling a crystal stairway. The life journey of an African-American during that time period is better represented by a staircase that is more difficult to traverse than crystal steps.
The next few lines provide more details regarding the mother’s interpretation of her life journey: “It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor- / bare.” (3-7) The powerful imagery encourages the reader to visualize a rickety, broken down staircase that is difficult and dangerous to climb. As a metaphor, the tacks, splinters, torn up boards and bare floor transition the imagery from a staircase to the struggles African-Americans have endured through history. The tacks and splinters are the physical and psychological wounds resulting from slavery. The torn up boards and bare floor are the transition from slavery to independence, there were holes in the dynamic between whites and blacks that made it difficult for blacks to thrive. The bare floor is the realization that freedom has its own challenges, emancipation didn’t solve all the problems African-Americans faced. Even living in the north during the Harlem Renaissance was difficult for African-Americans. Aidan Wasley, author of “Overview of ‘Mother to Son’” in Poetry for Students asserts “The speaker equates the history of African-Americans with an endless flight of broken-down stairs, such as might be found in the cramped and crumbling tenements in which many poor blacks found themselves forced to live in the ghetto neighborhoods of the northern cities.” (par. 5)
Hughes continues on to describe how the mother climbs the staircase of her life journey: “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.” (8-13) The imagery in this section evokes visions of a woman climbing a precarious stairwell slowly and surely, not allowing the corners or darkness to stop her from moving forward. She refuses to stop climbing. The metaphor Hughes uses to represent the journey of the black race in America is the connection between light and hope. There were times African-Americans had no hope for a better life, they were legally trapped as another man’s slave, yet they persevered. Hughes also uses a very specific type of language in this section, the words and inflection are representative of the older generation, not the well-educated man the poet was when he wrote the poem. Wasley asserts: “Hughes was just beginning his career as a poet when he wrote this poem, so questions of what to write about and how best to forge his poetic voice and identity would be pressing issues for him In this context, the "son" of the title becomes not the reader, but the poet himself, and the poem suggests that the son's frustration and despair is that of the poet, faced with the impossible task of writing poetry that truly speaks to and for the African-American experienceThe poet's "mother," who speaks in the voice of the African- American teaches him he need not abandon that tradition in order to write poetry.” (para. 8-9)
The next lines of the poem bring the reader to the point Hughes is trying to drive home: “So boy, don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps / ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.” (14-16) Using the metaphor of the stairs, this section provides the advice the mother wants to impart to her son: keep climbing not matter how bumpy the stairs get. On a larger scale, Hughes is telling his black brothers and sisters not to give up when life gets hard. He is imploring the current generation to follow the lead of the older generation and push through the difficult times. Hughes closes the poem with these lines: “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.” (15-18) The imagery of the last few lines leaves the reader with an image of a woman who is using her strength to inspire others. A mother advises her son not to fall, a poet advises his people to use the history of their ancestors to give them strength to keep pushing through life’s hurdles.
Langston Hughes wrote poetry to connect with and encourage his people. He also wanted to speak for his people. His poem, “Mother to Son”, provided white people insight into the life journey African-Americans experienced. His use of metaphor and imagery are not only a source of inspiration and understanding for Americans who lived during the first half of the twentieth century, his writing is still pertinent today. In contemporary society many African-Americans are still climbing a broken down staircase and many white Americans don’t have enough insight into the very real difficulties black people in the United States still face. Present day blacks could turn to the poetry Hughes wrote for motivation and a connection to their past, present day whites could read his words to better understand the African-American experience.


Hughes, Langston. “Mother to Son”. Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing. Compact 7th edition. New York: Longman Publishing Group, 2012. Print.
Wasley, Aidan. "An Overview of 'Mother to Son,'" in Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998. Retrieved from

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"The Stairway Of The African American Experience Literature Review Sample," Free Essay Examples -, 14-Dec-2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 27-Mar-2023].
The Stairway Of The African American Experience Literature Review Sample. Free Essay Examples - Published Dec 14, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2023.

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