The image of a staircase begins and ends "Mother to Son." "I'se been a-climbin' on, / And reachin' landin's, / And turnin' corners," the mother says, conjuring the image of a climb through all of life's hardships. She tells her son, "Don't you set down on the steps. / 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard." Her advice is to carry on, to keep climbing the stairs despite the desire to give up. Hughes' image of the difficult, upward journey toward a better life is advice meant for everyone in times of struggle.
The stairs referred to by the mother in this poem are in a state of disrepair and dilapidation. She says of the staircase, "It's had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor— / Bare." These lines evoke the image of the tenement houses where poor and disadvantaged African Americans were forced to live in the northern cities, particularly after the Civil War when many left the South.
Dark and Light
The mother in the poem says that while climbing the stairs over the course of her life she was "sometimes goin' in the dark / Where there ain't been no light." The imagery of darkness conveys the idea of being without hope. It also evokes a time of uncertainty when the mother was not sure whether she was headed in the right direction -- or what she might have encountered when she reached her destination.
The imagery of stairs that lead heavenward are evoked in the line "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." Like Jacob's ladder in the Bible, upon which Jacob saw a stairway traversed by angels leading up to heaven, the stairs are a spiritual reference. They embody the idea of leaving troubles and tragedies behind. The reference also alludes to the idea of suffering as a requirement to reach that crystal stair and, thus, heaven.