Sunday, February 1, 2015

Short Story Review: "Thank You, Ma'am" by Langston Hughes

I want to start off by saying that as I am closing in to my fourth year here on Blogger, I have surpassed 40,000 page views, am approaching my 300th post, and for the last twelve months, I have had at least 1,000 page views (the last month under 1,000 was January 2014 and barely so). I want to thank everyone that has come here to Caponomics and has read what I had to say. Since posting more about literature, I have seen a strength in viewership for some select reviews of mine, especially for the short stories and poems. To celebrate the fact that some of my more popular posts are for the reviews/analysis' of short stories and poems, I will be reviewing a short story by a poet.

Today is what would have been Langston Hughes' 113th birthday, as he was born on February 1, 1902. Hughes is one of my favorite American poets who has written in the 20th century, because his poetry is so honest to the point that he knows what is going on in the world around him and wishes that everyone should just be viewed the same. Being a black poet that was active in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes' material was reflective of the black struggle. His short poem, "Harlem," is one of his most notable works, which takes a gustatory approach to dreams being deferred. My personal favorite is "Theme From English B," where he tells a story in the poetic format about when he had to write a paper for his white professor. The work that sticks out to me the most, however, is his short story "Thank You, Ma'am." I was introduced to this work when I was in seventh grade (where I got a taste of several fantastic writers and their short stories) and its message has stuck with me ever since.

There are spoilers in this review. If you would like to read the story first, go ahead and do so before coming back to this review.

Luella Bates Washington Jones is a bigger woman walking home when a teenage boy named Roger makes an attempt to snatch her purse and run. His attempt fails and he topples over. Mrs. Jones gets a hold of him (after hitting him around) and confronts him immediately. She makes the decision to take him to her house and do something to him that he will never forget.

When they arrive at her house, one would get the impression that she would whack him a little more until she decided to call the police and take him away. Instead, she insists that he wash his face and then convince him to stay and eat. Roger comes off as being uneasy throughout the story and his nerves convince him to race to the door and run as far away from the situation as possible, but he continues to do as he is told. He also learns that Mrs. Jones (though there is no mention of her husband, we can only assume that one of these names was a maiden name) was not the greatest person with how she admits that there are things she would not even say to God. Of course, this should be viewed metaphorically. After they finish eating, Mrs. Jones gives Roger ten dollars to "buy those blue suede shoes he wanted" and warns him not to steal her or anyone else's purses. As she sees Roger out of the house, he wants to say more than just "thank you, ma'am," but cannot even bring himself to say that.

The reason that this story is so powerful is that it drives home the idea of "killing someone with kindness." When Luella Bates Washington Jones said that Roger would not forget who she was, she meant it. If she were to immediately call the police on him, it is assumed that he would have entered a cycle to which he would continue to do more harm to himself and those around him than good. By giving him what he needed to wash up and food to fill him up, she made him realize that is an element of life behind the strangers you come across, and it could create a feeling of guilt to the fact that stealing your way to what you need is not the right decision. By the end of the story, while Roger did not have to courage to tell her how her actions made him feel, they did stick with him and create a sense of appreciation.

An assumption can be made that the central characters in this piece, Mrs. Jones and Roger, are black by their environment and by the way they talk. This is, however, only an assumption. There is no mention in this novel regarding the race of either Mrs. Jones or Roger, so while it is likely that this is a novel about struggles among black people, this could not be confirmed. In fact, the ideas that come about in this story can be attributed to any individual, regardless of their background. The idea against stealing in order to get what you want or need is never the ideal solution at any point in time and while you may not get caught the first, second, or during the several attempts at doing so, getting caught is inevitable and once one gets caught stealing, the consequences are brutal. For Roger, theft came with a wakeup call from someone who showed him what a victim of attempted theft looked and acted like. These people are just as human as the people that one knows personally.

The idea of "killing one with kindness" is also a moral that could be attributed to everybody, because Langston Hughes did not see issues being directly confined to one race. This is an example to which performing a kind deed to someone who did something scornful is far more powerful than finding a way to punish that person. By doing something kind, there is a good chance that one may second guess what they did, which will develop feelings of guilt, regret, and from there, feelings of empathy. Of course, this is not always the case, but in more cases than not, acts of kindness outweigh acts of justification or seeking revenge. When you feel it is in your interest to seek the latter, it just takes a thought of realizing that in that particular occasion, circumstances will do that instead. The former will often prove effective and create what could be the best possible wakeup call.

Langston Hughes is a writer than has been successful at developing emotions that anyone could relate to. While he is often identified as a poet of black struggles, I see him as a writer and poet that evoked an emotion in a way that very few could. I would highly encourage the reading of one or more of his poems or short stories. "Thank You, Ma'am" is a great place to start, for it is a light read that is not too complicated whatsoever. Nevertheless, it is a very powerful read that will linger through your mind and your soul each time you read it.

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