Thank You, M’am

Thank You, M’am Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Langston Hughes's Thank You, M’am. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Langston Hughes

Hughes was born in 1902 to mixed-race parents in Joplin, Missouri. His parents’ marriage was unhappy, and they divorced when he was a young child. As a result, Hughes’s living situation was often in flux; he lived in 12 different cities before the age of 12. His relationship with his parents, especially his mother, continued to be strained throughout his life. Indeed, some have suggested that the plot of “Thank you, M’am” may draw on Hughes’s own tenuous childhood and the eventual stability he found living with his grandmother, with whom he moved in as a teenager. His storied career as a poet had an unlikely start: as a high schooler, his all-white classmates named him class poet, on the basis that his race gave him an innate understanding of rhythm. Despite the dubiousness of this claim, Hughes discovered his natural aptitude for verse. He published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926, before finishing his college degree. His poetry was influenced by jazz and the experience of working-class black Americans. As Harlem became a center for art and social protest, Hughes’s work and life became inextricably linked to the Harlem Renaissance. To this day, Hughes remains one of the most-read and beloved writers of this period. While most celebrated for his poetry, Hughes also wrote novels, musicals, children’s literature, short stories, essays, and plays. He died in 1967 from complications from cancer.
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Historical Context of Thank You, M’am

This story reflects the complex state of race relations in twentieth-century America. The placement of the story in an urban environment, perhaps Harlem itself, reflects the effect of the mass movement of black Americans from the rural South to urban coastal cities. Starting in 1915, over six million black Americans fled the Jim Crow laws of the South to search for more opportunity in the norther and western United States. Increasing discontent among black Americans also lead to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement at the time of Hughes’s writing (though that reached its apex in the 1960s). Those in urban areas often led protests and attended rallies. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. The subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott, which encouraged African-Americans to boycott the city bus system in response to segregated seating, became one of the most influential protests of the era. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which formally desegregated schools, was another pivotal moment in the history of civil rights. It was against this backdrop of a volatile and shifting American society that Hughes wrote.

Other Books Related to Thank You, M’am

Hughes’s work is often labeled as being part of the Harlem Renaissance, a concentrated period in the 1920s and 1930s in which black Americans living in the New York City neighborhood produced artistic work alongside social critique that highlighted the black experience. Hughes’s work can be most obviously compared to the production of fellow artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, and Carl Van Vechten. Less obvious literary forebears include Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose commitment to innovation in poetic forms and to drawing inspiration from ordinary life similarly color Hughes’s work. For instance, productive comparisons can be drawn between the autobiographical everyman of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Hughes’s own interest in conflating his background with the wider issues of black Americans.
Key Facts about Thank You, M’am
  • Full Title: “Thank You, M’am”
  • When Written: 1950s
  • When Published: 1958
  • Literary Period: Harlem Renaissance
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: An unnamed city at night
  • Climax: Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones gives Roger ten dollars to buy a pair of shoes before sending him on his way
  • Antagonist: Poverty 
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Thank You, M’am

Age-Old Parental Pressure. Hughes attended two colleges: first Columbia, which he left because of racial discrimination by his fellow students. Several years later, he took up studies at Lincoln College. At both schools, his father insisted he would only pay for his college if he studied engineering.