Langston Hughes, born in 1901 as James Mercer Langston Hughes in Missouri, U.S, was an American writer and social activist. Hughes grew up in the American Midwest before moving to New York City in his early adulthood. He has later cited literature as a way to escape the constant racism he and his family experienced during his childhood and began to write creatively while still in school.
Hughes is credited as one of the early creators of jazz poetry, a North American literary form beginning in the 1920s in which jazz-like rhythms are incorporated into the language and where jazz music or musicians are often put into the spotlight. Hughes is also known for his prominent part in the Harlem Renaissance, the most powerful movement in African American literature that transformed black literature. The movement primarily sought to revolutionize the stereotypical African American, which up to this point had been mainly characterized by the contrast they posed to white characters.
Hughes wrote works in several different genres, from short stories, to plays, operas and poetry as well as a weekly political column that spanned for nearly 20 years and was the founder of a Californian theater troupe. His first work was published in 1921, a collection of poems.
The short story Thank You, Ma’am about a young African American boy’s encounter with a white woman was published in 1958. The story is set in Harlem, portraying the visible changes the district has undergone since the surge in population.
In his writings, Hughes primarily focused on the lives of African Americans from lower social classes, incorporating both the struggles many faced due to poor social conditions as well as the diverse and rich culture, aiming to challenge the readers’ preconceived notions and stereotypes about African Americans. Thank you, Ma’am is a prime example of how Hughes twists and humanizes the characters in a stereotypical scenario in order to unveil the social and economic struggles behind them. The story’s ending has two moral lesson, one for the young man in the story but also a more subtle one for the readers to look beyond their own prejudice.