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Langston Hughes' Thank You, Ma'am: Theme, Summary & Analysis

Langston Hughes' Thank You, Ma'am: Theme, Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:01 Plot Summary
  • 2:26 Literary Themes & Analysis
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brienne Adams

Brienne has taught college level English and has a master's degree in Afro American Studies with a concentration in English Literature.

Read a summary of Langston Hughes' short story, 'Thank You, Ma'am', a snapshot of African-American life in the 1950s. Explore some of its main literary themes, and then test your own understanding of the story with a short quiz.

Overview of 'Thank You, Ma'am'

Were you ever been called out by an elder for your behavior when you were younger? Or maybe you made a mistake and someone gave you a second chance?

Langston Hughes' short story, Thank You, Ma'am, published in 1958, captures both situations. Langston Hughes was an important and prolific writer during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century. He wrote about African-American life and experience. Thank You Ma'am is about what happens when a teenage boy and an older working woman collide on a Harlem street.

Plot Summary

The story begins with an encounter between Roger, a teenage boy, and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, an older woman walking home from work late one night. He attempts to steal her purse, but because it is so heavy, and Mrs. Jones is quite stout, he merely ends up breaking the strap instead. She kicks him and grabs him by the shirt, asking if he feels ashamed of himself.

Roger admits that he does. Mrs. Jones notices that his face is dirty and his hair is uncombed; she asks if there is anyone looking after him. When he answers 'no', she drags him home with her, saying when she's finished with him, he'll be sure never to forget he met her.

When Roger and Mrs. Jones arrive at her house, she asks if he's had supper. She assumes that since he was trying to steal her purse, he must be hungry. But we learn that he wanted her money to buy a pair of blue suede shoes. When Mrs. Jones tells Roger that he could've asked her for the money, he doesn't quite believe her.

Mrs. Jones explains to Roger that she was young once, too, and also couldn't afford the things she wanted. She confides that, like the teenage boy, she used to do some pretty shameful things, too. While they eat, she refrains from embarrassing Roger by not asking him anything else about his life; instead, she talks about her job in a hotel beauty shop, where she meets women with all different colors of hair.

At the end of the story, Mrs. Jones gives Roger ten dollars to buy the blue suede shoes and tells him not to steal her purse or anyone else's for that matter, as shoes purchased with stolen money cause more trouble than they're worth. When she leads him to the door and bids him good night, Roger wants to say something other than 'thank you, ma'am,' but nothing suitable comes to mind. As he turns to look at Mrs. Jones in the doorway, he can barely get the words, 'thank you,' out of his mouth before she shuts the door. According to Hughes, Roger never sees her again.

Literary Analysis and Themes

Langston Hughes' short story Thank you, Ma'am is about 'second chances.' After their initial encounter, she quickly assesses the teenager's situation and realizes that he has no one to care for him. She didn't want to take him to the police, as he was very skinny and obviously hungry. But Roger did not want her money to buy food; rather, he wanted a new pair of blue suede shoes. The desire for this possession stands in sharp contrast to his dirty face and messy hair; as status symbols, the shoes would make him look as though he had more money than he really had.

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