Langston Hughes is an African American poet who is also well known for his work in fiction, plays, essays and biographies. This poem was written in the early 20th century when the African Americans faced some serious oppression and racism issues. The poem is a conversation between a mother and a son. It is a monologue by the mother where she tells her son that life has never been easy for her. She says she has faced a lot of troubles in the journey of her life but continues to move ahead. Despite all the challenges that came her way, she never turned away and chose not to give up. The mother tells her son that life will not always be a smooth ride but in spite of all the hardships and miseries, one must learn to move forward. She encourages her son to face life’s challenges head-on and tries to inculcate strength and courage in him.
The poem is a monologue by a mother. It has been written in free verse and has no rhymes or rhythmic pattern. The poet uses imagery as he refers to the journey of life as climbing a staircase and says that it has never been a beautiful crystal stair. It is indicative of the kind of poor and miserable lives the African Americans had in the early 20th century.
The poet has also used metaphor. He uses symbols like tacks, splinters, no carpet on the floor and darkness to describe the difficulties that one faces in life. The staircase is also a metaphor for the struggles people face in their upward journey of life. The upward journey refers to the journey to heaven or to a better place where one is free of all the pain and suffering.
"Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair."
The poem opens with the mother speaking to her son or like she is answering a question that he might have asked. She explains to the son that life has never been easy for her. Here ‘crystal stair’ symbolizes smoothness or beauty. The mother says her life has not been a smooth ride.
"It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
The words and phrases used in this stanza, like ‘tacks’, ‘splinters’, ‘boards torn up’ and ‘no carpet on the floor’ represent the difficulties and struggles that one has to face in life. Tacks are nails and splinters are small, sharp pieces that have broken off from wood or glass and can cause difficulty or hindrance for one’s movement. The mother says she has faced a lot of troubles in her life as one may face these troubles when climbing up a staircase. This stanza also indicates the kind of poor houses and miserable lives the African American had in the early 20th century. ‘Bare’ may also refer to the poor living conditions and lack of necessities.
"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."
In this stanza the mother tells her son that despite all the difficulties, she has been climbing up the metaphorical staircase of life. Here ‘turnin’ corners’ and ‘going in the dark’ represents the fear and doubts that one has during times of uncertainty. There will be moments of indecisiveness and confusion but one must continue to move forward and not give up hope.
"So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard."
The mother urges her son not to turn back and continue facing the challenges in life. She tells him not to be disappointed when he faces difficulties and not to settle down with it. He must rather face them and keep pushing forward. The mother tells him that the adversities that come his way should not dampen his spirit and he must continue to strive for a better life.
"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 mother tells her son that despite all the difficulties he faces in life he should not feel disappointed or lose hope. Falling off the staircase may also indicate being misled. The mother advises her son to not be misled and choose the wrong path during difficulties. The mother sets her own example by saying that she is still walking on that path and climbing that metaphorical staircase of life. She has not given up and continues to strive for a better life, free of all suffering and miseries. Here, the second line of the poem has been repeated where the mother says that life has not been a smooth and easy journey for her.
The poem is a monologue by a mother where she is speaking to her son. The mother tells her son that life has never been easy or free of difficulties. It has never been a smooth ride. She compares the journey of life to the upward climb on a staircase and says it has not been smooth like crystal. She talks about the various difficulties that one has to face in life like the broken parts and uncarpeted floors that make climbing a staircase difficult. Despite all the challenges the mother kept moving forward and also faced times of confusion and uncertainty. She tells the boy to do the same and have the courage to move forward without ever turning back. The mother also tells her son to not be misled or lose hope. She inspires her son by saying that she has always strived for a better life and even he must continue to do so.
The poem has been written in the early 20th century when the African Americans were under oppression and racial injustice. In the poem, the mother teaches her son about strength and courage. She tells him that one must possess the courage to move forward in life in spite of all the difficulties that might come his way. So, the main theme of the poem is that of perseverance. The poet passes the message that one must persevere to make his life better and not be discouraged by the adversities that one may have to face.