What Is the Meaning of the Staircase Used in the Poem "Mother to Son"?

The Harlem Renaissance transformed writing for African-American authors in America during the 1920s. Langston Hughes was at the heart of the awakening, with his strong voice and concrete images. His writing championed the black man and dealt with the cultural and social issues of his time. According to Arnold Rampersand, editor of "The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes," "He could sometimes be bitter, but his art is generally suffused by a keen sense of the ideal and by a profound love of humanity, especially black Americans." Hughes shows his understanding of humanity and respect for the black culture in his poem "Mother to Son."

Extended Metaphor

A metaphor is a literary device that compares one element to something else. Metaphors connect things that readers already know to a new element or way of seeing the world. An extended metaphor takes a comparison and carries it throughout an entire passage, like Hughes does with the staircase in the poem "Mother to Son." Rather than mentioning the staircase once, the whole poem is based around the staircase and how it compares to life. Hughes describes what the staircase, or life, is by first explaining what it isn't.

What the Staircase Is Not

Hughes creates the metaphor in the beginning of the poem, when he writes, "Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair." The strong imagery, the picture created in the reader's head of a crystal stair, is the opposite of what the speaker has experienced. Having a house with a staircase is good, but a crystal staircase shows prestige and money. By saying his life is not a crystal stair, Hughes is honest about his socioeconomic class and that of other black men.

What the Staircase Is

After clarifying that life was not glamorous, Hughes describes what his life was like by saying "It’s had tacks in it,/ And splinters,/ And boards torn up." The working-man description of the staircase he has faced is mirrored by the staircase itself and the act of climbing. Also, later in the poem he describes it as "bare." This means that life has had hardships and difficult spots along the way. Critic Aidan Wasley says, "The speaker equates the history of African-Americans with an endless flight of broken-down stairs, such as might be found in the the cramped and crumbling tenements in which many poor blacks found themselves forced to live in the ghetto neighborhoods of the northern cities."


Hughes uses strong verbs throughout the poem to simulate the action of climbing the stairs. This means that he sees life as an uphill climb. "Climbin'," "reachin'," "turnin'" and "goin'" are all strong action verbs. The mother exhorts her son to keep moving forward and not give up. She says, "Don’t you fall now—/ For I’se still goin’, honey,/ I’se still climbin’." Despite the difficulties of life, as pictured in the splintered, bare staircase, the mother still wants her son to keep moving, striving and succeeding.

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