Langston Hughes – "Mother to Son"
I would not feel comfortable just presenting my students a poem in which the implications of speaker's voice are expected to be highlighted, especially in the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes. My students need some background information from which to base their discussions so a biography of author will be provided. It should be noted that Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds the Hughes' letter and manuscript collection, newspaper clippings and photographs, as well as personal items, and artworks. This may serve as an idea for a class field trip at some point.
A copy of the poem can be found at the website: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/mother-to-son. An audio version can be heard at the website: www.tnellen.com/cybereng/matoson.html
It is one piece or, at least, one poet I think my classes might recognize immediately. That is why I made the decision to use it – because it is so tangible, visual, and immediately understandable. Again, I use a temporary platform to build upon. Using a Socratic inquiry, I will ask my students a series of questions about the poet and the poem, questions such as "Who is Langston Hughes, when did he lived, what do you know about his life, who is talking, is it really his mother speaking?" This type of inquiry should instantly engage the students. After they have listed all that they know using any background knowledge they already have, I will give them further information about the poet, the history and politics of the time, and about the poem itself. It is only after we look at some aspects of the historical, philosophical, social, and emotional context of the poet that we begin to gain some understanding of what Hughes possibly envisioned in terms of tone.
Some might argue that providing them this background information will implant a preconceived bias about the meaning of the poem. My response would be to remind critics that our students have little in the way of background information and, without it, an informed understanding can not be elicited. I believe that my students are intelligent and can discern for themselves the meaning of each piece with appropriate information. Knowledge built on knowledge, brick upon brick. I maintain that this background information gives them incentive and security from which to make an informed analysis of the piece. You don't throw a child into the ocean and expect him to swim ashore, or give him a 15 speed bike and expect him to just ride off. You must first give him Swimmies and training wheels then gradually remove these supports. This scaffolding strategy is the basic premise for my unit. The biographic portion of this exercise should last approximately 30 minutes and will be vital in providing my students with the background knowledge they need.
After reading the poem silently several times, the following questions about
will be discussed. Generally, the first questions might be, "What does the piece say to you; what is it about?" This poem concerns itself with the words and advice of a mother to her son as she struggled through life. It could be Langston's mother, a school teacher whose husband divorced her when Langston was young. Our biography tells us of the rather fragmented, difficult life he led as a child and young adult, moving from one household to another yet still being brought up with a lasting racial pride. But it could also represent the universal Black mother telling of the black experience during slavery and beyond. Both of these speakers are viable answers at this point. We might arrive at the discussion about speaker and context using following questions.
Speaker: How does the speaker, speak? Is the speaker the poet or a specific fictional character? Is the speaker an
(speaker who knows everything, may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings while the reader information) or casual observer? Who does s/he sound like? How is the speaker involved in the poem? Does the speaker refer to himself/ herself in the first person ("I" did this or saw that)? Is there more than one speaker? How does this change the meaning? Is the speaker from a specific country/state/region or from an identifiable time period in history? How or does knowing the historical context of the poem or the area from which the speaker is from change your understanding of the speaker's attitude?
: When was the poem written? What were the historical, political, philosophical, and social issues of that time (what was happening in the world)? Did any of these events or issues appear in the poem or influence the poem? Do any of these ideas change your understanding of the poem's theme?
The speaker in this poem is comparing her life to climbing a staircase, but not just any staircase, a crystal staircase. A crystal staircase, of course, implies wealth, luxury, and ease of living, but "Life for me ain"t been no crystal staircase." Her staircase was different. None of the symbolism of wealth and easy living applies to her. This metaphoric reference to a staircase is extended throughout the entire poem. Initially, she is speaking about her own life, using the first person "I" to let us know we are hearing about a personal experience. Still, students must be reminded that it could be a singular speaker or the universal black mother. The one thing we know for sure is that she is poor and has had a hard life.
Had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor-
My students might still be torn about the speaker. Is it about the collective Negro life during the Civil War or specifically about Hughes' own mother who was alive during this period? We know that his mother was force to leave Langston to be raised by his grandmother while she traveled looking for employment, so we know of her own personal ups and down. We know about the tacks and splinters and torn up boards with no carpeting. Her pain is seen in the torn boards and bare floors while it is felt in the tacks and splinter. These images convey the meaning and tone of the difficult life of a proud mother. There is a voice of pain and hardship, yet no complaint. She is resolute. In her voice we hear a simple comment on life. It is hard.
But all the time
I'se been a-climin' on
And reachin landin's
And turnin' corners
And sometimes goin'in the dark
Where there ain"t been no light."
It is here where my students maybe convinced that the speaker is a universal black mother because the language shifts somewhat more substantially and a black dialect with its distinct, perhaps, southern speech pattern appears. We now know that, in fact, we are not hearing a real story, but rather, a play, with the background on the characters provided by the biography. "I'se been a climin' on" reflects a tone and speech pattern of an uneducated mother. Since Hughes' mother was a school teacher, they might assume that she would use a more traditional and formal dialect. It is also in these lines that another shift of focus is addressed. The conflict is heard in the words "climin', reachin', turnin', goin', in the dark, and ain't been no light." To explore the conflict, the following questions could be used.
Conflict or Tension: What is the conflict (a problem) or point of tension in the poem? Is there an external (fighting with a person/people, with nature, with society) or internal conflict (the arguments a person might have with himself/herself – i.e. should I do this, why did I do that)? Is the conflict physical, spiritual (sacred or religious), moral (ethical), philosophical (truth seeking), or social? How are tension and poetic elements intertwined or connected? Is it resolved?
She struggles to climb this staircase, sometimes through the twists and turns of life, sometimes where there ain't no light of day. It is an individual struggle but we don't get the sense that failure was an option. It is a physical struggle but it might also be a social struggle if we buy into the idea that she is the universal mother of black slaves. The one thing that is certain is that she will not give up. The tone is undeniable. We understand this, as a shift from the explanation of her struggle to the direct advice to her son, occurs.
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
The tone becomes motherly and supportive as she explains to her son not to falter, not to rest even when it becomes hard, for she is continuing as well. She, herself, is still climbing. She is leading by example. He must never give up no matter what hardships occur. He must not fall. We see here that diction and dialect have a heavy hand as the poem moves through it lines. We understand the strong, female Negro influence as she almost invites him to join her in the last two lines and we come full circle with the repetition of the line, "And Life for me ain"t been no crystal staircase." These ideas about tone can be elicited using the following questions.
Tone: How is the
(the writer's attitude toward the topic) of the poem, developed through language, used to create imagery (images, similes, metaphors, description)? How does
(the language peculiar to the members of a group or region which is distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary i.e.
a southern drawl
) influence the understanding of the tone? Does the tone change as the poem progresses? Is it consistent at the beginning and ending of the poem?
It is here that my students will be asked to consider what a dramatic presentation might look like. Perhaps setting up a rocking chair in the classroom and asking for volunteer readers to highlight exactly how sound and context combine to form the tone of the poem might be considered. A secondary or additional assignment might be to write a written response similar to the one discussed here or even to try their hand at writing a poem in response to his mother's words.