In spite of Roger’s attempt to rob her, Mrs. Jones shows the boy nothing but kindness, advancing the story’s themes surrounding empathy, compassion, dignity, and trust.
One of the first questions Roger asks Mrs. Jones after they arrive at her home is whether she is planning to take him to jail. Indeed, conventional wisdom would mark that as the correct course of action. From an outside perspective, Roger is the assailant, and Mrs. Jones is his would-be victim. However, “Thank You, M’am” recognizes that there are different types of victimhood. Mrs. Jones does not dismiss Roger merely as a would-be assailant, instead recognizing him for what he is: a victim of circumstance. Roger comes from a difficult background, and he admits to Mrs. Jones that he doesn’t have anyone at home to take care of him. His face is dirty, he has not eaten, and he is described as “frail.” Mrs. Jones remarks:
You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?
This encapsulates Mrs. Jones’s attitude towards Roger throughout the story: although he is not truly her son, she takes it upon herself to behave as a mother would, knowing that Roger probably does not have any other positive role models in his life. She sternly lectures him about his appearance, the importance of eating, the need to get proper rest, and the dangers of ill-gotten gains. All of her words indicate that Mrs. Jones understands Roger on some level, and she remarks that she, too, did things she isn’t proud of when she was young. Her ability to empathize with Roger helps their encounter go more smoothly, and her apparent knowledge of how to handle such a situation puts the otherwise guilty and skittish boy at ease.
In addition to extending empathy and compassion to Roger, Mrs. Jones also makes an effort to impart upon him some important lessons about dignity and trust. Rather than allowing Roger to remain hungry and unkempt—which would likely only have cemented his feelings of shame—she feeds him and encourages him to wash himself. Though her words are stern and scolding, her actions actually encourage dignity and self-respect through the maintenance of a presentable appearance. Furthermore, by leaving the path to the doorway open and by not watching Roger as she cooks, Mrs. Jones is showcasing both her trust in Roger and her respect of his autonomy. Although she forced him to return to her home, she does not force him to stay, and Roger responds to her trust by thinking that he in turn “[does] not want to be mistrusted now.”
Additionally, Hughes, as a famed Harlem Renaissance writer, is known for writing about the experiences of Black folks, especially those living in poverty. Though race is never explicitly mentioned in “Thank You, M’am,” the story is often read as a commentary on the importance of community mentorship, self-worth, and establishing positive conceptions of Black identity. Roger begins the story as a would-be petty criminal because his life circumstances and the contemporary social messages around him indicated that such was the fate of streetwise, impoverished Black youths. However, Mrs. Jones refuses to perpetuate that narrative, instead encouraging him to take a greater degree of pride in himself and willingly giving him the financial support he initially sought through criminal means. Mrs. Jones essentially breaks the negative feedback loop surrounding Roger, and instead helps him conceptualize a world in which kindness, respect, and love are freely given.