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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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"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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

In “Ballad of the Landlord,” Langston Hughes appropriates the traditional ballad form but uses it in a contemporary urban setting to relate a current and crushing social problem. This conjunction of traditional form and contemporary content lends further power to the poem’s cry for social justice. The poem contains nine ballad stanzas (although the strict stanzaic structure is abandoned in the last three) that, in traditional use of the form, would narrate a tale of a dramatic or romantic adventure. The story here, however, tells of protest and jail. In the opening five stanzas, the first-person narrator/tenant is talking to and complaining about a landlord who has not done the repairs that would justify paying the rent on his house. In the remaining four stanzas, readers are told of the terrible consequences of the narrator’s protest.

In the first stanza, the persona of the poem complains to the landlord (in direct address) about the leak in the roof that he first mentioned to him “Way last week.” The complaint in the second stanza is about the stairs that have not been fixed; the narrator is surprised that the landlord (who has apparently come by the narrator’s house to collect the rent) has not injured himself: “It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.” In the third stanza, the tenant refuses to pay the ten dollars the landlord is demanding until the landlord fixes “this house up new.” In the fourth stanza, the tenant repeats the multiple threats of the landlord—to get an eviction notice, to cut off the heat, and to throw the tenant’s furniture into the street—and, in the fifth stanza, the tenant replies by threatening to “land [his] fist” on the landlord.

The remaining four stanzas undergo a radical shift in point of view and tone and move further and further away from the tenant’s perspective and pleas. The sixth stanza is italicized in order to convey the hysterical and exaggerated words of the landlord: “Police! Police!/ Come and get this man!/ He’s trying to ruin the government/ And overturn the land!” The last three stanzas, in machine-gun fashion, contain society’s responses to those unfair charges: The police arrest the tenant (stanza 7) and throw him in jail (stanza 8); the newspaper headlines proclaim “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD/ TENANT HELD NO BAIL/ JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL” (stanza 9).

The poem, therefore, breaks into two uneven parts. In the first five stanzas, the tenant gives his story to a landlord who ignores the cries for adequate housing and fair treatment. In the last four stanzas, the point of view shifts to the landlord, then to the society as a whole, and finally to the newspaper headlines about the incident in the final stanza. It is significant that the word “Negro” is only used in the last stanza when the point of view shifts and the society that now has control wants to identify those it labels as criminals. The social justice the tenant demands in the first two-thirds of the poem becomes the jail this society imposes on its victims in the final third.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

The most important device in “Ballad of the Landlord” is the ballad form itself. Meant to recount a story, the popular ballad form often includes dialogue (as here) and employs a simple four-line stanza rhyming abcb. Readers must wonder why Hughes would use such a traditional form for such an untraditional topic and employ it for only two-thirds of the poem. Actually, the ballad form has been used for centuries, as it is here, as a vehicle of social protest, and it is significant that a number of other twentieth century African American poets have employed the form in a similar way: Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, in “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” (1960), Robert Hayden in “A Ballad of Remembrance” (1966), and Dudley Randall in “Ballad of Birmingham” (1966). African American poets, in short, have often utilized the ballad form as a convenient way to convey their multiple messages of social protest.

Again, however, Hughes only uses the form for two-thirds of the poem and then violates it with two three-line stanzas of a harsh, fragmentary third-person description of what happens to the protesting tenant followed by the concluding three lines of newspaper headlines. (Notice that a continuing rhyme helps to tie these three short, final stanzas together: bell/cell, bail/jail.) The simple ballad form of the first six stanzas, which conveys the struggles of the tenant against his landlord, gives way to the staccato response of the tenant’s society: eviction, arrest, and, finally, jail. Hughes has used the ballad form to build a poetic structure of contrasts that works well to his purposes.

Beyond the ballad form, the poem uses several other devices that define Hughes as among the most prominent African American poets of the middle decades of the twentieth century. The poetic diction of the tenant’s narration, like the meter, is conversational and colloquial (“Don’t you ‘member?” and “You gonna cut off my heat?”) and works well in contrast to the more objective vocabulary of the concluding stanzas (like the staccato rhythm), especially the supposedly “neutral” language of the newspaper headlines (“MAN THREATENS LANDLORD”). The language of Hughes’s poetry, in “Ballad of the Landlord” and elsewhere, helps make it perfectly accessible in both form and content and is meant to convey an obvious, if ironic, message. Hughes, like many of his fellow African American poets in the 1920’s and 1930’s, wanted nothing to do with the difficulty and obfuscation that characterized so much of the high modernist verse of those decades.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

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