What lesson do we learn from "Thank you, M'am"?

The lesson we can learn from "Thank you, Ma'm" can be found in its humanistic depiction of African American inner city communities and the problem of poverty. This empathic and compassionate vision is an important message in the racially divided society of the United States.

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One of the principal lessons of Langston Hughes 's "Thank You, Ma'am" is that one cannot make judgments based on appearances. When Roger first sees Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, alone at 11:00pm at night, carrying a large, heavy purse, he thinks she looks like an easy target for theft....

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One of the principal lessons of Langston Hughes's "Thank You, Ma'am" is that one cannot make judgments based on appearances. When Roger first sees Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, alone at 11:00pm at night, carrying a large, heavy purse, he thinks she looks like an easy target for theft. This impression could not be more mistaken. However, when Roger sees what a formidable character Mrs. Jones is, his next judgment, based on the way he has generally been treated up to that point in his life, is also wrong. He assumes that she will try to take him to jail, call the police, or punish him in some other way.

Mrs. Jones, on the other hand, does not allow the circumstances of their meeting to prejudice her against Roger. It would be natural for her to think of her assailant as a hardened criminal, but she immediately sees Roger's vulnerability. Later in the story, she reveals that she has not always been the respectable citizen she now appears. Instead of lecturing Roger, she tells him:

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

The complexity and compromises in Mrs. Jones's past have given her enough wisdom to prevent her from judging others based on appearances, and she passes this lesson on to Roger and to the reader.

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I would say one of the most valuable lessons, especially in a society that has proven itself to still be racially divided and subject to racial oppression, that "Thank You Ma'm" provides can be found in its depiction of African American inner city communities. It is a largely humanistic portrayal, concerned with the realities of poverty in these communities, as it follows the encounter between Roger, the young teenage thief, and Mrs. Jones, the woman whose purse he attempts to steal. This humanism, and the sense of empathy and compassion that corresponds with it, is an important message amid the racially charged violence that we can see still exists in the United States today.

Additionally, you can discuss the moral message contained in the encounter between Roger and Mrs. Jones. Note that the two meet when Roger attempts to steal Mrs. Jones's purse, but Mrs. Jones's reaction is not to seek punishment or condemnation. Rather, recognizing his poor home life, she feeds him and discusses his life choices, before sending him on his way, even giving him the money he had earlier attempted to steal. This is an interaction based on empathy and shared experience, with Mrs. Jones noting that, in her own past, she has made choices she regrets and would rather not discuss. The implication is that she herself had come from a troubled past, and it is in that context that she reaches out to Roger.

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Perhaps what Langston Hughes was suggesting in "Thank You, Ma'am" is that the outcome for young men who commit crimes could be improved if adults were more invested in them and wanted to know the reasons that propelled them to prey on others. 

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is an extraordinary "average" woman; though not well-off herself, she does not succumb to the expected emotions of fear or anger after Roger tries to take her pocketbook.  Mrs. Bates notices that Roger is neglected; his face is dirty, and he tells her that no one is at home. As a result, she feeds him and urges him to clean himself up. When she asks Roger why he needed money, he admits that he wanted some new shoes. Instead of expressing outrage or lecturing him, she gives him money for the shoes and simply tells him that he would not have been able to enjoy shoes that he had gotten as the result of stealing. 

Because Mrs. Jones meets Roger with compassion and understanding (instead of the desire to see him punished), readers are encouraged to think about the impact a single person can make in the life of a young person at risk of becoming a hardened criminal or worse. 

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I think the main lesson of "Thank you M'am" is that we must take a larger view of society. How we treat others is reflected in their behavior. It isn't enough for us to accuse the poor of not working hard enough (or not working at all) and turning our backs on them, because when we do, we perpetuate the problems of poverty. We are not told why no one is home for Roger, why he has no one to go to, to tell him to wash his face and to feed him--he may have no parents; one or both may be in jail; they may be on drugs; or...they may both be working two or three jobs apiece to put food on the table for him. We know only that he's a young man on the streets alone at night and on his way to prison someday. Hughes connects the two for us: his empty home leaves him without a role model. Mrs. Jones--a stranger--steps in as that role model, and makes a difference. Thus, another lesson: we can make a difference in the lives of countless people ourselves by simply caring: perhaps if we didn't react through fear (in this case, Mrs. Jones could simply have called the police and been done with it, making him someone else's problem) and assumed responsibility for helping others ourselves, we could reduce the amount of pain (and crime) in the world. 

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