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Langston Hughes: The Pioneering Black Poet of ‘Mother to Son’

Langston Hughes, born in 1901, was a Black American poet and one of the earliest innovators of jazz poetry. Raised primarily by his grandmother, Hughes was deeply influenced by her oral traditions and the activist spirit of her generation, which instilled in him a lasting sense of racial pride.

He spent much of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas, and in his 1940 autobiography, he reflected: “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books, where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.”

Hughes began experimenting with writing at a young age and was elected class poet in grammar school. He later remarked that this was likely due to the stereotype that African Americans have natural rhythm. While he felt victimized by this stereotype, it was this very rhythm that distinguished his work from that of early 20th-century American poets.

Hughes had a strained relationship with his father, who he rarely saw. Hoping to gain his father’s support to attend Columbia University, Hughes moved to Mexico. He later recalled, “I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.” Although his father wanted him to pursue a career in engineering abroad, they compromised: Hughes would study engineering at Columbia. After more than a year, Hughes left his father and started at Columbia in 1921, maintaining a B+ average and publishing poetry in the Columbia Daily Spectator under a pen name. However, due to racial prejudice among students and faculty, he left in 1922.

Hughes was more drawn to the African-American community in Harlem than to his studies. Harlem was a vibrant cultural hub, and Hughes continued to write poetry.

Some academics and biographers believe Hughes was homosexual, including coded references in his poems similar to those of Walt Whitman, who influenced him. His story “Blessed Assurance” addresses a father’s anger over his son’s effeminacy and “queerness.” Biographer Aldrich argues that Hughes remained closeted to maintain the support of Black churches and organizations and to avoid financial instability. Arnold Rampersad, Hughes’s primary biographer, concluded that Hughes was likely asexual and passive in his sexual relationships, although he showed a profound respect and love for Black men and women.

Hughes was also accused of being a Communist, though he denied the allegation. He stated, “it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept.” In 1953, he testified before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hughes explained, “I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself.” Following his testimony, Hughes distanced himself from political activism, moved away from political poetry, and focused on more lyrical subjects.

Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in New York City from complications after abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The design, an African cosmogram entitled “Rivers,” features a line from his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

In 1922, Hughes wrote a poem in which a Black mother speaks to her son about her life, stating, “ain’t been no crystal stair.” She describes her struggles and resilience, hoping to impart this strength to her son. Martin Luther King Jr. later referenced this poem in his speeches during the civil rights movement.

Here it is:

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—

Bare.

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.

*As a postscript about this poem, Martin Luther King Jr. referenced “Mother to Son” at least 13 times in his public appearances, including during his “I Have a Dream” speech. These references often emphasized the themes of perseverance and moving forward.

Hughes’s use of folk diction and rhythm gives the poem authenticity, making the mother figure come alive. She represents countless African-American mothers encouraging their children to keep striving despite hardships.

THE END

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*Photo of Hughes By Yale Collection of American Literature