Sometimes there’s nothing like a good poem to open people up. Here’s an account of an amazing conversation I had with a member of our building’s housekeeping staff when I shared with her Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”
First, the poem:
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.
Brenda Carter is a large and motherly African American woman who is not only one of the hardest working members of the housekeeping staff—last year she won the college’s “Staff Member of the Year” award—but one who also spends her weekends in service to a storefront Baptist church. I regularly worry that she works too hard.
(Note to people who cavalierly want to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare: such a change would hit people like Brenda particularly hard.)
Anyway, I had just walked out of a class where I had taught “Mother to Son” and there was Brenda so I read it to her. She made instant connection with the poem, identifying with both mother and son. First she talked about opening her daughter’s eyes to various threats. Then she told me about her mother.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi around 1945, Brenda’s mother one day decided that she’d had enough of the south. So she hopped on a bus and headed north. She ended up picking cotton in southern Maryland, which may have been segregated but it wasn’t Mississippi.
Oh, and she was 11. And she had Brenda two years later.
Although life would get better—she would go on to become an oyster shucking champion, a big deal in southern Maryland–life was still no crystal stair as she would lose both her sons. But Brenda learned much from her determination and now is a force herself. Continuing on in this tradition is her daughter Ebony, who graduated from high school (unlike her mother and grandmother) and is now setting up a day care center. Meanwhile Brenda’s mother is “still climbin’.”
I was reminded in our talk why Hughes is such a beloved poet. He has a remarkable ear for his community’s language and for its rhythms. I thought back to a discussion we’d had in my Contemporary English-Language Literature Survey where we contrasted him with T. S. Eliot.
Of course, Eliot has a far greater reputation, but I couldn’t help favoring Hughes. Both men describe what it’s like to be in the grip of what Hughes calls “the weary blues,” but whereas Eliot looks to Western culture and eventually traditional Christianity for relief, Hughes turns to art that is indigenous to the African American community. Both experiment with avant-garde forms, but in the end Hughes seems to have a healthier vision. For Hughes’ jazz musicians, “trouble mellows to a golden note” (“The Trumpet Player”) or they “sleep like a rock or a man that’s dead” after playing a “sad raggy tune” (“The Weary Blues”), whereas Eliot’s angst-ridden individuals quote Dante and whine a lot. Eliot looks down on people in bars (the “Game of Chess” section in The Waste Land) while Hughes loves and celebrates them.
Eliot isn’t the kind of poet one shares the way I shared Hughes. There’s a lot to be said for Langston’s communal vision.