Mother to Son

Discussion questions and related resources for the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

“Mother to Son” is one of Langston Hughes’s most famous poems. The video below features an oral interpretation of the poem by the acclaimed actress Viola Davis, followed by a reading by the author himself.

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.

Related Resources

“Mother to Son”: Poem and Discussion Questions (PDF)

“Mother to Son” read by Viola Davis and Langston Hughes (YouTube)

The Poetry Foundation: Langston Hughes
(Biography, selected poems, related content)

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s

Questions for Discussion and Writing

1. To gain insight into the poem’s basic meaning, apply the SOAPSTone method. Keep in mind that some of these elements function on multiple levels (e.g., author and speaker).

  • What is the subject of the poem?
  • On what occasion do you think the speaker is saying the poem?
  • Who is the intended audience for the poem?
  • What do you think the purpose of the poem is?
  • Who is the speaker in the poem?
  • What is the tone of the poem (the speaker’s attitude toward the subject)?

2. Discuss the form of the poem—elements such as meterstructuresound devices, and rhyme scheme. How does the poem’s form contribute to its meaning?

3. The poem consists largely of an extended metaphor. Identify this metaphor, and interpret its various aspects. What do the following things represent?

  • “tacks” (line 3)
  • “splinters” (line 4)
  • “boards torn up” (line 5)
  • bare places “with no carpet” (lines 6-7)
  • “landin’s” (line 10)
  • “corners” (line 11)
  • dark places without light (lines 12-13)

4. In contrast with the metaphor above, what would a “crystal stair” (lines 2 and 20) be?

5. Discuss the speaker’s use of repetition in the poem. What is the effect of these repeated elements?

6. Why do you think Hughes chose to use colloquialisms (spoken, informal expressions) in the poem such as “ain’t,” “climbin’,” and “I’se”? What effect(s) do these expressions have?

7. What message is the speaker trying to convey, and what rhetorical strategies does she use to convey that message effectively?

PDF version

Questions © 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.