Thank You Ma’am
By: Langston Hughes (A Summary)
Find the audio for this story at my YouTube Channel: HERE
Download the transcript in PDF format: Thank You, Ma’am
The story features two characters: A boy named Roger and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.
They meet when Roger attempts to steal Mrs. Jones’s purse as she is walking home late at night. Roger loses his balance, and Mrs. Jones, who seems to be a substantial woman, first kicks him in the behind as he is sprawled on the sidewalk, and then hauls him up and shakes him. She has the boy pick up her purse, and begins to scold him. Then the story takes a turn,
“Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”
“No’m,” says the boy.
“Then it will get washed this evening,” said the large woman starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.
And with those simple lines, Hughes affects a magical transformation turning a tough old black woman into everybody’s mother and a young hoodlum into everybody’s friend, brother or son. By explaining the crime – it’s out of a child’s impoverished necessity – and humanizing the characters, he makes us understand that Roger is not a bad kid as much as he is a kid trapped in difficult circumstances.
After a bit more physical and verbal trouncing, Mrs. Jones’s course of action is clear:
“But you put yourself in contact with me,” said the woman. “If you think that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another thought coming. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.”
Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle.
Mrs. Jones locks her elbow around the boy and drags him up the street and into her house where her attitude lightens up on the toughness and starts to load up on love. She feeds him, lectures him gently, and gives him the money he was attempting to steal so that he may buy the blue suede shoes that he needs.
This is how the story concludes:
“She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it. “Goodnight! Behave yourself, boy!” she said, looking out into the street.
The boy wanted to say something else other than, “Thank you, ma’am” to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but although his lips moved, he couldn’t even say that as he turned at the foot of the barren stoop and looked back at the large woman in the door. Then she shut the door.”