Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

As with many of Langston Hughes's works, a key theme at play in this poem is that of racial discrimination, and particularly the role it plays in the enforcement of socioeconomic positions. The speaker in the poem is a black man whose landlord has not adhered to his responsibilities toward...

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As with many of Langston Hughes's works, a key theme at play in this poem is that of racial discrimination, and particularly the role it plays in the enforcement of socioeconomic positions. The speaker in the poem is a black man whose landlord has not adhered to his responsibilities toward his tenant. The landlord insists that "ten bucks" is due to him, but has not fixed any of the issues blighting the speaker's home. The speaker uses colloquial language suggestive of black American patterns of speech—"ten bucks you say is due"—which emphasize the fact that this person presents as a black man in every part of his life; he is viewed as such by the landlord and by everyone he meets, including those reading his written words. There is no doubt in the poem that the speaker's race has contributed to the way his landlord treats him.

It is also very clear in this poem that the landlord is far from alone in treating his tenant this way. On the contrary, society as a whole judges the black man guilty, regardless of the truth of the matter. At the end of the poem, the speaker imagines the headlines if he were to physically assault his landlord—the judge would give him, a "negro," ninety days in jail. As such, the speaker feels unable to press his suit with the landlord, even though the landlord has failed in his duties.

The poem is, essentially, a cry of frustration against a racist social structure which forces black people to put up with things they should not have to deal with.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

The themes of “Ballad of the Landlord” come out of a vital American literary tradition: The poem taps the energy and meaning of much of the social protest literature of the 1930’s. Poems, stories, and essays about tenant evictions, rent protests, and similar activities were common fare in the social realist American literature of the 1930’s. In that tradition, Hughes represents the unfair advantage of society in this struggle: The landlord has only to call the tenant a communist (“He’s trying to ruin the government/ And overturn the land!”) for the police to throw the tenant in jail. Another example of the influence of radical 1930’s literary roots is the abrupt form of the last three stanzas and, particularly, the capitalized words of the last stanza, which may remind readers of the “newsreels” in John Dos Passos’s trilogy of novels, U.S.A. (1930-1936), in which he creates montages of newspaper headlines to construct a realistic background for his fictional narratives. Nowhere was this 1930’s social realism stronger than in the African American literary tradition, which goes back to the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1929), a literary, musical, and artistic movement that included Hughes as one of its major practitioners: His first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926), is one of the landmarks of the movement.

What makes “Ballad of the Landlord” unique is Hughes’s own special treatment of this incident. In the early stanzas, he establishes the justice of the tenant’s claims against his landlord but closes realistically with American society’s typical response to protests similar to the tenant’s, especially in the 1930’s: eviction and jail. There is no justice in this society, Hughes complains, particularly for African Americans. The landlord has all the weight of the police and the judicial system on his side; the tenant has only truth and moral rightness. Like many traditional ballads about folk heroes fighting for justice (Robin Hood, for example), Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord” honors the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised. However, the title of the poem ultimately and ironically tells readers who the hero of the poem in this society really is and who will finally win this struggle.

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