The characters in ‘‘Thank You, Ma’m’’ speak in a form of black dialect. This is not standard English but a type of language derived from the history of the black experience in America. It is still frequently spoken by individuals in the black community who have relatively little contact with other groups in American culture, despite standardized and integrated education and the standardizing effect of mass media like radio and television. In fact, black dialect is becoming an increasing powerful influence on the English spoken in American television and films. In part as a result of social isolation, and in part as a badge of community identity, black dialect has been far more resilient than the accents of other immigrant groups. Another factor is that it is not merely an accent but a true distinct variety of English. It is closely related to the speech of white Americans in the southern states, though more archaic. It is descended from the local dialects of the English West Country from which the majority of immigrants to the southern Colonies came in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Once this language was picked up by the slave population, it developed along its own path, though one intertwined with the various dialects spoken by the surrounding white linguistic communities. This dialect is distinct from the standard or northern variety of American English that is more closely related to the dialects of the east coast of England and to the standard English of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, adopted by English aristocrats.
The dialect elements Hughes employs are very slight. He wishes to give his educated black as well as his white readership the flavor of the language without presenting text that might be difficult to read, or might have been considered socially embarrassing in the 1950s. A typical example is in this exchange between Roger and Mrs. Jones from the beginning of the story: The dialectical elements include the ‘‘Yes’m’’ which is an extreme contraction for ‘‘Yes ma’am.’’ This kind of contraction is simply archaic; it is characteristic of Shakespeare’s language. The same can be said of the substitution of ‘‘What . . . for’’ for ‘‘why’’ in Jones’s reply. The difference in usage between ‘‘aim’’ and the more standard ‘‘intend’’ is very subtle but probably results from a preference for English roots over words of Latin origin that did not generally enter dialectical speech because Latin learners tended also to adopt more standard forms of English. Standard speakers might think Jones’s exclamation is a mistake for ‘‘You are a liar!’’ But dialectical forms are not mistakes. West Country dialects, and hence also the dialects of the American South, frequently prefix a onto present-tense verbs to show continuous or characteristic action (as in ‘‘She’s a-comin’ round the mountain’’). That is what is going on here: Jones is distinguishing ‘‘You lie!’’ from ‘‘You lie by nature!’’ Language is said to be figurative when it communicates more than its literal meaning. Although figurative language is used in all good writing, it is particularly characteristic of poetry, and Hughes’s use of it, even in prose works, reflects his essentially poetic style. For example, at the beginning of ‘‘Thank You, Ma’m,’’ Hughes describes Mrs. Jones as carrying ‘‘a large purse that had everything in it but a hammer and nails.’’ In point of fact, this statement is not true: there are very many other things Mrs. Jones did not have in her purse. It is hyperbole, suggesting something by giving an exaggerated description in a way that exceeds reality. Just as some women carry little more than a wallet, others carry enormous purses with many compartments containing a wallet, a checkbook, a manicure kit, food, water, keys, pens, pencils, a diary, and numerous other items. The difference goes some way toward defining character. In choosing the evocative, figurative, hyperbolic description of the purse, rather than a ponderous literal description of its fabric and contents, Hughes also sets a comic and playful tone for story.
Although ‘‘Thank You, Ma’m’’ is quite readable as a slice of Hughes’s beloved Harlem life, it nevertheless seems to contain another message. Of its two characters, Mrs. Jones is large, secure, self-confident, active, while Roger is thin, weak, and desperate. Moreover, Mrs. Jones feeds and cares for Roger and perhaps changes the course of his life by simply by caring about him. It is not hard to see the two characters as representations of the class divisions that existed within the black community in Hughes’s day and as the expression of Hughes’s belief that the better-off strata of the black community had a responsibility to help their worse-off brethren. Mrs. Jones is able to help Roger not only because of her resources but because she has a sense of pride in her black identity that he lacks, but that she tries to start building in him. Read in this way, the story becomes an allegory of black self-help. It is a tribute to Hughes’s style that figures who are so clearly symbolic nevertheless do not lose their humanity.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.