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It is ironic that Langston Hughes should have titled the poem Ballad of the Landlord, when the actual speaker in the poem is not the landlord, but the tenant. One would therefore expect that the title would celebrate the tenant, who is the hero of the poem, for fighting against the injustice he has to suffer at the hands of an uncaring and unscrupulous landlord.
It is clear from the context that the tenant has some very serious issues with regard to his dwelling, which need to be addressed by the landlord.
My roof has sprung a leak. (line 2)
These steps is broken down. (line 6)
It is evident that the landlord is unwilling to do the necessary repairs since he feels that the tenant owes him some overdue rent - ten dollars, in fact. The tenant protests and threatens that he would not pay the outstanding rent until the repairs have been done. The landlord, for his part, threatens to evict the tenant, cut off his heat and throw out his furniture.
These threats so upset the tenant that he, more than likely out of sheer desperation, issues a counter-threat to the landlord:
You ain't gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.
This, however, breaks the stalemate and gives the landlord a reason to summon the police. He exaggerates the threat and the tenant is arrested and later appears in court. He is sentenced to 90 days imprisonment for having threatened the landlord.
The poem is a depiction of the oppression and abuse suffered by African Americans in the era in which the poem was composed (1930's) and serves as a protest. The irony is, however, that these protests mostly fell on deaf ears and the actual victims became the villains, as in our poem. Society then saw the landlord as the victim and punished the tenant, when it should, in fact have been the other way round.
The landlord, in this context then, becomes the hero and therefore we have, in an occasion of dramatic situational irony, a Ballad of the Landlord.
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