I recently took a cruise down the Mississippi River on an old-fashioned steamboat, and it made me want to revisit the great African-American poet Langston Hughes’ best-known poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (that’s what inspired this title.)
But my personal favorite Hughes poem is “Mother to Son“, which I think of whenever I feel like I just can’t take that next step. The poem is about about overcoming hardship, and Hughes experienced plenty of it, individually, and as a member of two persecuted peoples, blacks and homosexuals. And as it turned out, he suffered from prostate cancer, too.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He initially lived with his father, a lawyer, and his mother, a schoolteacher. But after Hughes’ father, James, moved to Mexico to escape discrimination, Langston was shuffled around between relatives. He went to live with his father when he was 17, but the two didn’t get along. However, James Hughes had become well-off, and he agreed to pay for Langston to attend Columbia University — but only if he would study engineering. Hughes enrolled, but dropped out after a year, because of racial prejudice. Also, there was too much going on next door — the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.
Langston Hughes never married, and it is now acknowledged by biographers that he was gay. But he remained closeted all of his life for fear of damaging his career. I didn’t know it when I first chose this poem, but Hughes died of prostate cancer — from complications of surgery, in 1967. So he probably had to overcome some of the same obstacles — or “climb stairs”, as he would put it — as many men here. Finally, Hughes’ voice is a particularly appropriate one, considering that black men suffer from PC in disproportionate numbers.
I recently treated myself to a big fat book called, “Poetry Speaks — Expanded”. It comes with CDs of poets reading their own works, and it includes Langston Hughes’ rendition of the aforementioned poems. What a treat!
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 boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
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.
— Langston Hughes