Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"Ballad of the Landlord" is a 1940 ballad written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Basically, it tells the story of a black tenant who is mad at his landlord for not fixing the leaky roof and the broken steps. The landlord ignores the tenant and reminds him instead that his rent is due. The tenant, in turn, says that he will not pay until the landlord solves the maintenance problems. The landlord says that if he doesn’t pay he will throw him out on the street, and the tenant threatens to punch him in the face. Thus, the landlord calls the police, who arrest the tenant, and the court sentences him to jail for ninety days. The media, naturally, has a field day, and write headlines that suggest that the black tenant was the one who started the problem.
The main themes in the poem are, obviously, the systemic racism and the discrimination towards the African American society in the US. Hughes boldly writes that the society favors those who are in power and those who are rich, and especially focuses on the inequality between black tenants and white landlords. There was a common misconception in the early 1900s that African Americans were bad and irresponsible tenants that ruined their rented homes. In reality, the fault laid with the landlords and landladies who refused to properly take care of the properties that they rented to African American tenants, and didn’t really bother to improve the living conditions, mainly because their tenants were black. "Ballad of the Landlord" takes charge against white supremacy and racial discrimination and urges on social equality and justice.
The poem is written in an urgent, aggressive and ironic tone and consists of eight stanzas: six quatrains and two tercets. Typical of a ballad, the six four-line stanzas are written in a dialogue form and follow a simple abcb rhyme, while the last two stanzas are composed of three line units. It is noteworthy to mention that the first five stanzas are written from the tenant’s point of view, the sixth one is written in the landlord’s point of view, and the seventh and eighth are the police and the media’s reactions to the tenant and the landlord’s dispute. The language with which the poem is written, especially when it’s from the tenant’s point of view, is very informal and even incorporates slang from the early 1900s.