In Mother to Son, Langston Hughes explores the idea of determination amidst difficulties. The poem is about a mother expressing herself to her son in the form of advice on how to navigate through life in the face challenges. From the mothers advice, it can be inferred that the son is searching for his own identity in a life full of confusion and struggles. Throughout the poem, Hughes extensively employs symbolism to criticize American society for limiting the progress of Americans Africans through discrimination and racial prejudice.
Hughes employs dramatic monologue (the voice of the poem is relayed by an imagined speaker rather that of the poet) to link with the audience. At the onset of the poem, the readers attention is drawn to the voice of a mother who appears to respond to her sons request for advice or perhaps as a reaction to the sons expression of frustration at the state of life in regards to personal achievement. The poem begins, Well son..(Line 1).Hughes choice of words hints to the reader of a troubled son. This technique creates the impression that the reader is the son. However, a critical interpretation of the poem reveals that the troubled son actually is the life of Hughes. This style gives the reader a clue on the life experiences of African Americans in the early years of 20th century America. In other words, the monologue explains to the reader the reason that has motivated the mother to give advice and encouragement to her son.
The Mothers council raises a lot of questions as to what has triggered the concern about the frustrations of her son. The mother appears to understand the reasons for the frustrations of her son. But, in actual terms, who are the words directed? What is their effect on the reader? What do the words reveal about the mothers experiences and aspirations? Why has Hughes resolved to express himself through the voice of a mother?
The mothers voice is an important symbol in the poem as it is employed to explore the theme of struggle for freedom and injustice among Americans of African descent in the 1920s.The poem was set in a time when race was a crucial factor determining success in many spheres of American life. Essentially, the mother represents the voice of African Americans, speaking against a society that has subjected members of their race to a multiplicity of injustices for many generations. The voice narrates the troubled past of African Americans, the way things stand in regards to their position in society, and future aspirations of black people as a whole.
As a matter of general knowledge, the past (in the context of the period before Hughess poem) subjected black people to inhumane conditions. From the time of forced labor in the plantations to the institutional discrimination under Jim Crow rules, their story depicts a society riddled with injustice. In mothers voice, she says that past had tacks in it, and splinters(lines 3-4).In this case, tacks and splinters are symbols, representing the suffering that black people have endured for years. Problems such as lynching, corporal punishments in the plantations, forced labor, and lack opportunities are some of the sources of suffering that is being represented as tacks and splinters. These injustices emphasize the current condition of the son and also create a picture of the frustrations that he is undergoing hence the motivation to seek guidance from the mother.
The narrator continues with her observation of the state of the lives of black people in America with a revelation of the squalid conditions in which they live. Such conditions are also a depiction of the unjustness of the American society towards African Americans. For instance, the mother describes her life experiences as torn up boards and places with no carpet on the floor(lines 5-6).These expressions reveal a society that discriminates some groups of people in matters relating to human settlements. Perhaps Hughes aims at informing the audience of the ghetto lifestyles of blacks in cities of the North in the wake of the great migration from the South. The description further reveals the discriminatory wages that black Americans received during the industrialization of the United States. In other words, paying low wages could afford blacks better houses. Living in squalor denies people a hygienic environment in which they could comfortably pursue their aspirations. Also, poor remuneration makes it almost impossible for workers to meet daily obligations. These are painful experiences and, as such, can cause a lot of frustrations as evidenced in the life of the addressee in the poem.
Despite the many obstacles that the American society has placed on Americans of African descent, there seem to be a resolve and optimism that someday society would treat each member equally as well as provide an opportunity for everybody to succeed in their own endeavors. This resolution can be observed in the mothers words. She says, throughout her life, she has been a-climbin on(line 9).This expression suggests that the life of the mother has not been without difficulties. It takes a lot of courage for the narrator to accept the way things are but make efforts towards challenging some of the various hurdles that society has placed in the path of growth and development of black communities. Besides, she has often been pushed off her lifes course, and this always comes with frustrations. She adds, turnin' corners, and sometimes goin in the dark(lines 11-12), a place where is no light.
Light and darkness are contrasted with each other to symbolize the many problems that blacks have suffered for years, yet they have not stopped because freedom is an expensive commodity. For this reason, one has to be ready to incur extreme suffering in order to achieve civil liberties not for themselves but also for other oppressed groups in society. By mentioning them at the same line, perhaps Hughes wishes to inform the reader that life presents both positive and unfavorable events in humanitys life. All that is needed is to prepare for such happenings and any eventualities that may be associated with them and prepare accordingly.
The belief that things would be better someday is the position that the mother takes in regards to the tribulations of the son. It is unavoidable to take this position and temptation to give should be discouraged. The mother posts, So boy, dont you turn back(line 14). She further indicates that the son should not set down on the steps (line 15). In the other way, the son should not be discouraged by the obstacles that society imposes on minority groups in the United States. If Africans Americans lose track of the main event, it may not be possible to realize what they wanted. The mother also advises when she says, cause you finds its kinder hard(line 17). Though these words, Hughes intends to underline the fact that what has been achieved in the political struggle is reason enough to keep the fight until all forms of discrimination have been destroyed.
Conviction plays a vital role in making the reader understand the determination black people have in regards to full attainment of their goals and aspirations. The mothers point of view is that society would yield to the demands and expectations of its people. Such The convictions had crucial elements that spurred on Martin Luther King Jnr (several decades later) to make a call that black people would get to the Promised Land.
On a lighter sense, the poem can be said to symbolize the career of Langston Hughes. At the time of writing the poem, Hughes was in his early twenties, and this may have created uncertainties as to whether he would succeed in poetry. Hughes imagines a difficult life to his literary career. The reason for the doubts is not motivated by the competence of the author. Rather, it is the quest for identity that creates confusion on what write about society.
In conclusion, Hughes attacks discrimination for its contribution to frustrations among young people. It is evident that the mother is a symbol that represents the voice of African Americans in American society. This symbol is critical in the poem in the sense that it gives an account of the various injustices that have taken place, as well as the potential for a better future.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.
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