Thank You, Ma’am Summary

Langston Hughes

Thank You, Ma’am

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Thank You, Ma’am Summary

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“Thank You, Ma’am” is a short story by Langston Hughes that features two characters: Roger, a young African-American boy, and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, an elderly African-America woman. One day, Roger attempts to steal Luella’s purse. He slips and falls during the attempt, and Luella kicks him in the backside before lifting him up and shaking him.

Luella interrogates Roger and learns that he has no one at home taking care of him, not even to wash his face. Luella tells Roger that he’s going to get his face washed today, and drags him to her house in a half-nelson wrestling hold.

Once at Luella’s home, the two talk about Roger’s home life. Luella makes a point of leaving her front door open, and when she releases Roger, she presents him with a choice: he can go and wash his face and get a meal, or he can run home. Roger chooses to wash his face.

Roger explains why he was trying to rob Luella. He wants money to buy a new pair of suede shoes. Luella continues to leave the door open, and even leaves her purse nearby when she goes to cook a pot of lima beans. Roger chooses again not to run off.

As they eat, Luella tells Roger about her job. She works the late shift at a hotel beauty shop. The two share a small cake. Then Luella gives Roger ten dollars for his shoes, and tells him to leave.

Luella leads Roger to the front door. He cannot even manage to say a simple thank you. He leaves, and the two never see each other again.

“Thank You, Ma’am” focuses on poverty and forgiveness. While Hughes is well-known for writing about matters of race—and race is mentioned and important in this story—, this story’s lessons also transcend race. Luella is tough and honest, and also trusting and steadfast in her beliefs. The faith she shows in Roger’s ability to eventually make the right choices shows the power of empathy and humanity. The reader is asked to have a similar faith, as we never learn how Roger’s life unfolds after this incident.