“Mother to Son” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” are poems written by Langston Hughes that use symbolism to exemplify the struggles of African Americans as they attempt to persevere through adversity. Hughes utilizes the stairs in “Mother to Son” and the rivers in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as his main modes of symbolism. In “Mother to Son,” Hughes uses a worn staircase as an extended metaphor to parallel its flaws to the struggles of African Americans. The poem begins with a mother speaking to her son about the pressures of reality and telling him not to succumb. She tells her son, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” (Mother to Son “MS” line 2) to portray that her life is far from perfect like the stair of a white person. She describes her life as having “tacks and splinters….
with boards torn up” (Hughes lines 3-5). These defects symbolize the problems in her life whether they were caused by her race or gender. Aside from the mother’s race and gender, her lack of education also plays a role in the hardships in her life. Hughes makes her limited education apparent in his use of her vernacular.
Words like “ain’t” and “I’se” (MS lines 4, 9) symbolize the fact that Mother is from a Black background and she does not have sufficient education. These limitations, however, do not keep her from persevering and keeping a positive paradigm. She wants her son to realize that, though they may not have the best education or a more advantageous skin color, they must strive to overcome these hardships to reach their higher potential. In “. .
a staircase that goes on indefinitely. In Mother’s speech, she never speaks of an end. However, she continues to explain that through her climbing, she has seen torn boards and barren floors. This parallels the idea in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” that Blacks will reach snags in their progress, but they must work past the snags in order to survive as well as flourish.
Through the exemplary use of symbolism, Langston Hughes produced two poems that spoke to a singular idea: Black people have prevailed through trials and tribulations to carry on their legacy as a persevering people. From rivers to stairs, Hughes use of extended metaphor emphasizes the feeling of motion which epitomizes the determination of the people. Overall, the driving feeling of the poems coupled with their strong imagery produce two different works that solidify and validate one main idea.