In the Langston Hughes story "Thank You, M'am," how does the culture of the the characters affect their decisions?

In this story, we can appreciate that Mrs. Jones has been raised in a culture where she is encouraged to take care of herself because she is walking alone at 11pm. She is unafraid to defend herself against the boy who has assailed her. Meanwhile, the boy, despite having attempted a mugging, is subsequently very polite and afraid, addressing the woman as "ma'am" and showing remorse, which is also evidence of the culture in which he has been raised.

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The culture in which we are raised affects all of our decisions, one way or another. We cannot identify exactly what sort of culture Mrs. Jones and the boy in this story have been raised in, although we can infer that they are African American and from working class neighborhoods. However, we can certainly see the evidence of their socialization in the way they behave.

For example, Mrs. Jones has evidently been raised in a culture that impresses upon her the value of being able to take care of herself. She is not afraid to be walking alone at eleven o'clock at night in a neighborhood where she might be mugged, which is what the boy tries to do to her here. She reacts to the attack in a canny fashion which suggests she has dealt with this sort of situation before, and her behavior towards the boy is no-nonsense and unafraid. This is an example of how her culture has shaped her.

The boy reacts to Mrs. Jones in a way also shows evidence of the culture he comes from. He is immediately sorry and addresses Mrs. Jones politely as "ma'am" and "lady." His response to Mrs. Jones's changing attitudes shows a willingness to learn and a respect for authority, despite the fact that he has assailed her in a dark alley. When Mrs. Jones is kind (albeit firm) towards him, the boy does not run away. He recognizes the kindness in her words, and responds to it positively.

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"Thank You, M'am," by Langston Hughes, tells the story of a boy named Roger who attempts to steal a purse from a tough but kind woman named Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. 

A person's culture usually has a significant impact on their lives, influencing every decision that they make. That doesn't mean that everybody from a culture behaves the same way or makes the same decisions, but they are all influenced by the socialization they receive from the people and traditions around them. Identifying their culture can be a tricky proposition sometimes. To associate a person with a specific culture, it isn't enough to simply look at them; you have to know at least a little something about them.

In "Thank You, M'am," Hughes does not explicitly identify the characters' culture. We can make several educated guesses though. Hughes usually writes about African-American characters. Based on this and the dialect we hear from the characters, we can assume that Roger and Mrs. Jones are, in fact, African-American. This fact by itself does not identify their culture, however, because there are multiple African-American cultures, depending upon location, age, education, socio-economic level, religious affiliation, etc. 

Let's look at Mrs. Jones. What is she like? How has she been shaped by her culture? When we first meet her she is walking home at eleven p.m. So we know she has a job (we learn later that she works at a beauty shop that is open at night.) Then, when Roger tries to snatch her purse, she is anything but the helpless victim. As a strong, willful woman, she does more than just repel Roger's attack: she drags him down the street and back to her apartment. We can see that Mrs. Jones has been taught to be responsible and to take care of herself. 

When she gets Roger back to the apartment, she says and does a couple of things that say a lot about her and the culture that produced her. Instead of punishing the boy, she is kind. She cooks for him and actually talks to him on a personal level, revealing something important about herself:


I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know.

We see that Mrs. Jones is, at least to some extent—we cannot know how much, a spiritual person.

At the end of the story, she astonishes Roger (and the reader) when she actually gives him the ten dollars he wanted to buy the blue suede shoes with.

So we can confidently determine that Mrs. Jones is strong, independent, spiritual, and kind. Her culture has to have had a key role in either making her that way or in encouraging her to make the decision to be kind and helpful to someone who was actively trying to hurt her (although not physically).

As for Roger . . . well, he's a 14 or 15 year-old kid on the streets by himself late at night who attempts to steal from Mrs. Jones. He tells Mrs. Jones that he has not eaten because there is no one at home. We can see that he is not being cared for properly. That's the negative side. More positively, he responds to Mrs. Jones kindness by offering to help her and wanting to express his gratitude to her at the end of the story.

Mrs. Jones and Roger are two very different people, but they have been produced by the same culture—probably an African-American urban culture. Just like any other culture anywhere else in the world, people develop differently even if they grow up in similar circumstances. That is partly because each culture is composed of various subcultures. Mrs. Jones subculture probably included responsible, independent parents and an active church life. Roger's probably does not.

We should not assume from all of this that a person's fate is sealed by the culture they are born into or the challenges they face early in life. There are countless examples of people who have developed differently than the norm around them, both in positive and negative ways.

 

 

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