In both of these Langston Hughes’ poems, Hughes embodies various personas to illustrate the problems African Americans faced in housing discrimination.
In “Ballad of the Landlord,” the speaker is a tenant who is having a confrontation with his landlord. Despite having asked for repairs to a leaky roof and broken stairs, the tenant is now being threatened with eviction if he doesn’t pay the ten dollars that the landlord demands is owed. The voice in this poem embodies what it is like for many black renters who are forced to live in squalor because of landlords’ disregard for their tenants’ quality of living. The voice of the speaker reflects the frustration at such a situation and the eventual outcome: the landlord provokes the tenant into a fight, calls the police, and has him arrested.
Similar in theme, “Madam and the Rent Man” uses two voices to illustrate this concept. The titular madam converses with her “agent,” who has come to collect an overdue payment on the landlord’s behalf. Dissatisfied with the conditions of her apartment, the madam refuses to pay. The agent deflects responsibility since he is just a middle man. The back and forth between these two personas gives us more insight into the thinking of each character. The agent only cares about getting the money he came for, not bothering to consider whether the madam’s complaints are valid. At the end, they both “agrees” they “ain’t pleased,” which suggests that both parties in the situation are harmed in the cycle of rent collection and building neglect.