The Poetry of A Raisin in the Sun

I was recently chatting with my fellow Park Square Theatre blogger, Ting Ting Cheng, about my previous blog and about how Lorraine Hansberry took her title from a line in a Langston Hughes poem entitled, “Harlem”. Well, Ting informed me, the first title Hansberry ever had in mind was “A Crystal Stair” which comes from another Hughes poem called “Mother and Son”.

Whaaaaaa?

I love this! Primarily because this poem is new to me and I think it is just as powerful as “Harlem”, alive with rich imagery and written in such prose that it really speaks to the common person while, again, reflecting the singular African American experience.

Here it is:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
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.
See what I mean? I for one can’t get enough of the imagery that is so simple yet conveys so much. Words like “tacks” and “splinters” fill you with a sense of something sharp and unpleasant. The picture of a person walking through the darkness is dreadful as well as the word, “bare” –  alone by itself as if to symbolize it’s own meaning.
For all of the negative imagery, however, the poem offers up hope in the virtue of perseverance. No matter how hard the path is, the Mother continues to struggle for a higher salvation and tells her son that he must also follow this path. Up is the only way they can go and while it may not be any crystal stair, the landings will still be reached and the corners turned.
Much like, “Harlem”, this poem can perfectly summarize A Raisin in the Sun. The Younger family knows these stairs better than anyone and like the Mother and Son in the poem, the generational dynamics are the key to the play. How many times does Walter want to just give up and “set down on the steps”? How many times does Mama have to fight him not to?
Think about the meaning of this poem when you’re watching A Raisin in the Sun. Think about “Harlem” too. Think about all the great works of literature by African Americans like Hughes, Hansberry, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and a thousand others because their stories are American stories the same as anyone else’s. They need to be studied, read and seen. How lucky we are then that Park Square is telling one of those stories now.
Also, listen to Viola Davis give an outstanding reading of the poem here.
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