Langston Hughes is one of most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His goal is to write truly "Negro" poetry without perpetuating racial stereotypes. He is not alone; there are many Black intellectuals during this period crafting art, literature and poetry in ways to express their heritage. "Mother to Son" is one of his earliest poems; he is only 21 when he creates this beautiful tribute to his ancestry. It takes the form of a dramatic monologue, a weary mother giving worldly advice to her son. The poem places the reader in the position of the son, listening to his mother draw lessons from her life that can be applied to his own. The poem "Mother to Son" uses an extended metaphor comparing a stairway to the mother's life; this troubled yet courageous view of her life gives inspiration to her son and to future generations of all races.
The title of the poem sets the stage of a mother getting ready to give her son advice. Hughes is known for his refusal to separate his personal experiences with the common experiences of Black America. Hughes" background and familiarity with the biblical "Jacob's Ladder" (Genesis, Chapter 28) and its ties to the struggle and freedom for Blacks in America, creates the backdrop for the matriarchal figure that speaks to her son. The first two lines of the poem, "Well, son, I"ll tell you; / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair" can be interpreted as a tired and weary parent delivering a lifetime of experience to her son (lines 1-2). This is the principal statement of the poem and introduces the metaphor. The first line appears to be in response to frustration or an inquiry about the past as if asking a question and this is the response. The second line compares the mother's life to a crystal staircase. A crystal staircase: beautiful and translucent indicates wealth and luxury, which are unknown in this mother's life. It also exemplifies the way to heaven after many hardships and oppression as in the song "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" originally sung in the fields and later becoming a traditional spiritual hymn in the churches.