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Langston Hughes, one of the world’s most famous poets, was known for his literary art and jazz poetry created during the Harlem Renaissance. He was a social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist who attended Lincoln University to study African American Life and History. “Thank You Ma’am” was published in 1958, the period that was represented by violent segregation between the blacks and the whites, and it became one of Hughes’ most famous short stories. It revolves around the topic of second chances, teaching the audience that very few things can be categorically defined as black or white. “Thank You Ma’am” full story is full of meaning that remains relevant even in modern times, which is why literary analysis is required to overview the plot and reveal its layers.
A brief summary is required before moving to Thank You Ma’am” analysis. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is a black woman who is returning home after a long day of work at about eleven o’clock in the evening. She is carrying a purse heavy with money in a way that is immediately visible to other people walking next to her. While the street seems empty, it is not so, and at one point, a boy jumps forward and tries to steal the purse. It is Roger, who is a poor youth in desperate need of some basic things, such as blue suede shoes. His attempt at theft fails and he falls, with Mrs. Jones kicking him and scolding him mercilessly. Later, though, she takes him to her apartment where she mothers him, letting him wash and feeding him. When the boy admits why he needed money, she gives it to him, and he feels so overwhelmed that he struggles with voicing something as simple as the words of gratitude.
The events of “Thank You Ma’am” take place in two specific settings, namely, an empty street and the house of Mrs. Jones. This woman works in a beauty shop and based on this fact alone, it can be speculated that she lives in the North because, in the South, African American women were not able to secure a job like this at that time. Roger also mentioned that he wants some blue suede shoes, which is a reference to Elvis Presley. His song entitled “Blues Suede Shoes” was popular in the 1950s. Undoubtedly, at first sight, the protagonist in “Thank You Ma’am” is Mrs. Jones, with Roger playing the role of her foe, but things are revealed to be more complicated. They do not become enemies and one does not overcome the other. On the contrary, Mrs. Jones heals the emotional wounds of Roger partly, showing him kindness and support. Hughes uses the third point of view to describe the situation, but despite this fact, every moment feels extremely personal because of his unique writing style. The subtext he created is rich with meaning and important implications.
Langston Hughes, who wrote the story, clearly did not intend to make his characters blank and stereotypical. While Roger appears to be the antagonist in “Thank You Ma’am” at the first glance, his character is far from being a one-dimensional villain. In turn, Mrs. Jones is a strong, no-nonsense type of person, but she is also not judgmental. Despite her large and intimidating physical appearance, she is kind-hearted, which is something that Roger desperately needs. Stealing anything is a wrong and flawed decision from any perspective, but at the same time, it can be understood depending on the circumstances. Hughes shows that Roger is ultimately a good person who is put in a bad situation. He does not know how to make money to buy what he needs in any other way. His complex personality is further revealed when he tries to thank Mrs. Jones for everything she has done for him. He is so affected that he cannot even utter these words aloud, which shows that he has a developed emotional side.
Mrs. Jones’ development follows a similar pattern. On the one hand, when the story starts, she kicks Roger, a young boy who has already stumbled and fallen to the ground. She is also direct in unleashing her criticism on him. However, gradually, it becomes evident that she possesses a so-called “tough love” that she uses on Roger. Despite her initial harshness, which is justified by the crime that has almost occurred, she fusses over him and shows his care, which reveals her as an extremely kind, wise, and sympathetic woman who does not hold grudges and is willing to understand why her offender did what he did. The topic of second chances is central to the plot, and in the end, both characters benefit from it. Thus, the “Thank You Ma’am” story is engaging and meaningful, which explains why it remains popular even now.
Scholars can only speculate as to what made Langston Hughes write this story, but the fact remains, it is one of the most stunning examples of complexity expressed in several pages. At first glance, everything seems standard. Even the setting in “Thank You Ma’am” reflects simplicity since only two places are engaged in the plot. However, their meaning creates a stark contrast that helps distinguish them from each other based on many-layered subtext and context. The street is empty just like Roger’s life has been, with no one to appeal to for support. Mrs. Jones’ home is a cozy and lovely place where he finally understands what being cared for means. “Thank You Ma’am” publication date might have affected the writer’s inclusion of these specific characters and their race, but he went beyond it and painted a vivid picture of humanity and deep understanding. This story is a prime example of why second chances should be given to people even if they made mistakes.
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