Langston Hughes

When reading the poem “Mother to Son,” written by Langston Hughes in 1922, one can sense what was weighing him down emotionally. The Jim Crow laws of America were eating away at the souls of black people and Hughes needed an outlet for his pain.

In “Mother to Son,” he uses the voice of a black mother to speak truth, reality, and encouragement to her young son. She sums up her life in these words:

“Well son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” 

The mother goes on to tell her son that her life has tacks and splinters in it. But she keeps on climbing her stairs. She says she has to walk in places where there’s never been any light, but she won’t stop climbing.

“So boy, don’t you sit down because life is hard. Don’t you fall!  I’m still climbing, honey! I’m still climbing. And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” 

Hughes was a young man when he wrote the poem, but he was well aware that Jim Crow laws were designed to “Undo” all the advancements African Americans had made during the decade of Reconstruction (1867-77) in this country.  

In fact, the goal of White Supremacy was to send African Americans back to the plantations, the fields, the chains, the torture, and the misery … so they might continue to work without pay, without proper food and shelter, and without other life-sustaining accoutrements. Slavery!  

Reconstruction was the period in Black History when the newly emancipated slaves moved decisively toward crippling the Southern Power Structure of that day. Former slaves embraced their right to Citizenship grounded in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Two years later, they ravenously consumed their right to vote provided by the 15th Amendment. African Americans took to political action like hungry lion cubs with their first taste of meat.

The term “Up from Slavery” struck fear and desperation in the heart of those who shackled us, worked us literally to death, and abused us to the point of stripping away our humanity. This, of course, relieved their conscience of the guilt and shame most human beings would feel after doing what they repeatedly did to us.  

If you examine the 10-year stretch of time that history refers to as Reconstruction, you will find a staggering account of black achievement. Let’s start with the two African Americans who served in the US Congress! One of them was “Up from Slavery!”  

More than 600 African Americans were elected to state legislatures and hundreds more held local offices across the South. Not bad for a people who were loosely characterized as three-fifths of a human being.  

These achievements whet the appetite of African Americans to “taste and see” how far they might go if given a chance to spread their wings and soar even higher. All these Life-affirming activities were thunderous Incentives for African Americans to “Keep Climbing!” The goal has always been to achieve “Actual” Freedom … of our mind as well as our body.

It was no secret that Southern whites were frustrated with policies giving former slaves the right to vote, own land, and hold public office. What started as intimidation, quickly escalated to massive lynchings, various forms of violence, and the open-air murder of black people. Lynching became second nature to those most determined to reinstate White Supremacy.  

It was in this climate that the Ku Klux Klan took its first hate-inspired breath. They instituted a murderous reign of terror on African Americans. Looking back on this period in Black History, one writer referred to the climate of the time as “home-grown, race-based Terrorism.”   

This message is for all who walk on American soil and call this land home, whether your people are “Up from Slavery” or not.  Look at the various life experiences below.  Are there any similarities with your Family Tree?

The enslaved Elders of my Family Tree were regularly lynched, tortured, brutalized in every way imaginable. They were treated less well by their owners than a beast of burden. We were relevant only in terms of commerce — to buy, work, sell or discard at will.

The Elders of my Family Tree emerged from South of the Border, seeking asylum and a New Life. Our thirst for freedom and equality has not been fully quenched.

The Elders of my Family are few. Our Tree was marked for Elimination, a 20th Century euphemism for mass murder by Hitler and his Nazis. Before the crematoria ovens there were death marches, starvation, and sadistic experimentation on our bodies.  

The Elders of my Family Tree can vividly see the impact of generational poverty and neglect, ill-health, and hopelessness on the Reservations we call home.

The Elders of Our Family Trees clawed their way out of foreign death traps around the world, inspired by all the Evil that can embody a human being.

I believe in the GOD-breathed Life that still remains in all of us.  Our Stories are Not Over! I believe this is the message of Black History … Our History.  

We Must Keep Climbing!

Sheila LyonHall is a published author and freelance writer residing in San Fernando.  Her website is: