The poem "The Ballad of the Landlord" consists of five traditional ballad stanzas followed by dramatic outcries and newspaper headlines. The first five stanzas are quatrains rhymed ABCB.
The poem conveys a narrative. The speaker is a black tenant who is addressing a slumlord who has let the property run down to the point where it is dangerous. The landlord is demanding rent money and the tenant argues that he shouldn't be obliged to pay the landlord until repairs are made. The landlord threatens to evict the tenant for non-payment of rent and the tenant loses his temper and threatens to hit the landlord.
Although the tenant never actually does hit the landlord, spectators summon the police and the tenant is jailed for 90 days while the landlord is not punished.
The main point of the poem is to highlight racial injustice and the way it is exacerbated by economic inequality.
Langston Hughes' poem "The Ballad of the Landlord" describes very poignantly the pathetic living conditions of the blacks in New York's Harlem in the 1930s.
The ballad is an imaginary conversation between a black tenant and his white landlord. The white landlord has been exploiting his black tenant for a very long time by not repairing the black tenant's house - the roof leaks, and the steps are broken. When the black tenant insists that the white landlord should immediately repair the leaking roof and the broken stairs, he retorts that he will evict him from the house and that he will cut off the heating and throw out his furniture,
What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?
The black tenant loses his temper and raises his fist to strike him,
You ain't gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.
The white landlord calls for the police and the black tenant is arrested and sentenced to ninety days in jail by a white judge, "JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!"
Langston Hughes' poem satirizes the injustice meted out to the poor marginalized blacks by the white majority in New York's Harlem.