In The Ballad of the Landlord, Langston Hughes makes a tone of frustration and anger appear in his words. Even though the poem’s rhythm is like a nursery rhyme, there is the underlying anger that comes through in his language. Why is this tenant angry? Because he has been mistreated for a long time by this landlord, or slumlord to be more exact about it. If we put the poem into context of the time that it was written and the author, then we can come away with more information on the source of the extreme anger and frustration that come through in the words. Hughes is writer that provided a voice for the always downtrodden and discriminated against Black people in America. His work usually highlights an aspect of the injustices Black people lived with every day during Hughes’ lifetime.
The times when Hughes is writing is about twenty years before the start of the Civil Rights movement in America. Up until then, Hughes’ voice and others like him (artists and writers) were the only protests Black people had. This is a poem of protest and as much as it expresses anger, it also inspires anger in the reader. As Hughes talks about the lack of heat and hot water, and the crumbling stairs for instance, the reader can feel empathy for any humans forced to live under such conditions. This is a time before discrimination was legislated out of housing and hiring practices, and many people who had so-called decent housing refused to rent to Blacks. Hughes pulls compassion from the reader as the tenant goes down the list of things that are wrong with his living conditions.
There is humor in the poem, even as dire as the circumstances are. Hughes appears to be referring to the landlord as fat when he talks about the stairs being weak in the second stanza. “Landlord, landlord, These steps is broken down. When you come up yourself, it’s a wonder you don’t fall down” (Hughes, 1940). All the while he is appealing to the landlord, he is actually complaining about the rent, the condition of the dwelling, and he is insulting the landlord and even threatening his life.
Hughes highlights the injustice of the penal system, some seventy-five years before today when the same protests are being made. The man goes on to tell his landlord off, and in some way he gets some satisfaction from telling him that he will not pay anything until the housing is renovated. The landlord gets the last laugh in the end, however, because he simply tells the police that the man has threatened him. Hughes changes his rhythm in this part of the poem. He uses stark ne-liners in capitalized letter to catch the reader’s attention to the proceedings and also to stun the reader over the turn of events.
In the beginning, the reader can rejoice at the tenant’s chance to tell the landlord off, to stand up for his rights and demand better treatment like any other citizen. In the end, the reader’s glee is snatched away, just as the rights of many Blacks during that time were snatched away as well. The tenant is hauled off to jail for threatening the landlord; his outburst makes a headline in the local newspaper. He is sentenced to ninety days in jail, so the reader can conclude he lost his apartment and his job, and who knows what type of treatment he suffered at the hands of the police for threatening a white man. The poem conveys an air of hopelessness for the future.
- Hughes, L. (1940). The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, eds., Arnold Rampersad & David Roessel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 402-403.