Conflicting Voices in “Ballad of the Landlord”
Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of the Landlord” appears to have four main speakers, each with its own idea about the action of the poem. It is musically structured, rhythmically, from the very beginning being. These conflicting voices from the tenant, landlord, the police and the press, embellishes a black man’s experience in a society dominated by whites. It addresses the issue of race and social class. Throughout the poem, the speakers remain nameless, suggesting that these experiences happen to every poor black man.
The most important voice in the poem comes from the tenant, who, according to the last line, “JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL” (line 33) is black. The attention is on the tenant and his struggle evokes a feeling of sympathy from the reader when he is thrown into jail. The tenant is identified by his relaxed and unusual speech, his slang. He uses informal language such as, “Ten Bucks” and “``member” suggesting the tenant’s severance from the world of convention, followed by the formal voices of the police and the press appearing later in the poem. He also incorporates nonstandard English in his speech, “These steps is broken down.”
Despite his use of slang and nonstandard English, the tenant has organized and logical complaints. The tone of the poem is bitter and rightfully so. The tenant is mistreated by everyone: the landlord, police and the press. He complains and complains again to the landlord: “My roof has sprung a leak. /Don’t you `member I told you about it/Way last week?” (lines 2-4). He even tries to appeal tactfully to the self-interest of the landlord: “These steps is broken down. / When you come up yourself/ It’s a wonder you don’t fall down” (lines 6-8) in the second stanza. The landlord’s words seem to be implied, but he does manage one verse providing the reader with a vivid image of someone who is very racist and very greedy. In the third stanza, when the landlord counters...