Family & Community

Emancipated Slaves Brought from Louisiana by Colonel George H. Banks, December 1863 albumen silver print by Myron H. Kimball (active 1860s). (Public domain via metmuseum.org)
Langston Hughes’s famous “Mother to Son” is a poem of intergenerational understanding. Direct and accessible, Hughes’s poem nonetheless displays a doubleness, in that we’re given a son recounting, in the mother’s voice, what his mother once said to him. It’s powerfully generous to the mother, but it also admits something about the son’s knowledge that has come from the mother. A poem of mother-wit, a poem about passing along knowledge, it’s also a poem of metaphor. It’s not a straight line. The poem’s concluding line (also given at the beginning), “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” may seem straightforward, but we should hear it communicating resilience and a kind of resistance that is rooted in womanhood. The poem is both about resistance and about family as a kind of safe haven: it looks inward, but also looks outward. It drops the veil: it is given in the voice of someone else—a leap into the consciousness of another—but it isn’t speaking for that person. A lesser poet would have written a poem to say, “This is what Black mothers experience,” or “This is what family does.” Hughes, instead, enacts the experience: the telling is part of the testifying in the poem. — From the essay by Kevin Young
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