Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Poem: "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

I came across this poem in a Langston Hughes collection that I bought for a friend the other day. I can't remember how long it's been since I've thought of it--ten years, at the very least. I used to teach it as part of a poetry unit to 10th graders. Or maybe it was a one-time thing to 8th graders in summer school.

Anyway, I like this poem because it's simple and straightforward. I like its tone, and I like to imagine the speaker, a bent old black woman. And when I say old, I mean wizened and ancient, though I don't know why, exactly--Hughes could have envisioned someone my age, for all I know. It's also a great teaching poem--metaphor/extended metaphor, voice, part of a unit on parent-child relationships, "life lessons"...endless possibilities.

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 splinters,
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.

Here's something weird (maybe). This poem also makes me uncomfortable. The language reminds me of Uncle Tom, and it makes me see racist and/or stereotyped portrayals of uneducated, simple-minded black people dispensing hard-won, folksy wisdom: Mammy, Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom...but of course that's not what Hughes intended. Right?

I bought the collection for a friend because he's a black man who grew up in Oakland, and he writes poetry, and Langston Hughes was a black urban poet. Which is completely ridiculous, because that's really all they have in common that I know about. On the other hand, isn't it true that ethnicity in this country often correlates with a shared experience? If someone bought me a book of poetry by an Asian American woman, would I be intrigued or insulted? I suppose it depends on the spirit of the gift.

I had forgotten the immediacy of Hughes' poetry, how rooted it is in place and time. My friend tends to like poetry that Makes Sense of Life--the huge picture--more than snapshots that evoke a feeling or an experience and then just leave you with it. He likes poetry that has closure. Hughes' poetry does, and does not. So I ended up keeping the book for myself.

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