"Mother to Son"
The mother says to her son that life has not been a “crystal stair” – it has had tacks and splinters and torn boards on it, as well as places without carpet. The stair is bare. However, she still climbs on, reaching landings, turning corners, and persevering in the dark when there is no light. She commands him, “So boy, don’t you turn back.” She instructs him not to go back down the stairs even if he thinks climbing is hard. He should try not to fall because his mother is still going, still climbing, and her life “ain’t been no crystal stair.”
The speaker advises the reader to hold onto dreams, because if dreams die, life will be like a bird with damaged wings that cannot fly. When dreams go away, life is “barren field” covered with frozen snow.
These two poems are not as widely anthologized, but are thematically similar in the way Hughes expresses the disparity between the American Dream and the reality of life for African Americans during the early 20th Century.
Hughes wrote "Mother to Son" when he was 21 years old. He structures the poem as a conversation between a mother and her son. It is free verse and written in the vernacular, meaning that it mimics the patterns of speech and diction of conversation. The mother begins by telling her son how hard her life has been – it has not been a "crystal stair." Hughes then develops the metaphor of a staircase further, as the mother describes the challenges in her life using symbols like tacks, splinters, uncarpeted floor, and dark, unlit corners. She exhorts her son not to turn back, because she never will.
By using the metaphor of the staircase, Hughes alludes to Jacob's Ladder. The Mother character is on a difficult and arduous uphill journey, hoping that if she endures her struggles she can eventually ascend to the highest "Promised Land." Biblical imagery was quite common in autobiographical accounts of slavery and racial injustice during the early 20th Century. The Mother tries to help her son maintain his faith as well, which will help him persevere through life's struggles. The mother's voice in "Mother to Son" is similar to the voice of the poet in "Dreams," who offers advice and hope for any of his readers who might be losing faith.
"Dreams" is an extremely short poem written in free verse. It is two stanzas long, and the content dictates the form. Hughes instructs his readers to hold on tightly to their dreams because without them, life is a "broken-winged bird / That cannot fly." The hobbled and downtrodden bird is a physical symbol of the discrimination and struggles that African Americans faced during Hughes's time. Dreams, however, have no physical limitations. Dreams are important for maintaining faith as they provide comfort, solace, and hope in a brutal world.
In this way, "Dreams" shares thematic content with "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)" because the latter poem also demonstrates the importance of dreams and aspirations. However, "Harlem" is a bit more cynical in its assertion that if dreams are never realized then they might manifest themselves in a literal or psychological explosion. In "Dreams," though, Hughes implies that even if one's dreams do not come true, a life without hope is barren and sad.