Characters in the Poem "The Ballad of the Landlord"
It easy to fall into the trap of complaining about injustice when one encounters it in everyday life. Langston Hughes, however, wasn't content to simply complain about the racism he saw all around him. In many of his poems, including "The Ballad of the Landlord," he uses his voice to speak up for those who have none. Each character in the poem represents a segment of the society in which he lives.
The beleaguered renter in Hughes' poem has a leaking roof, broken steps and no luck persuading his landlord to take care of the problem. When rent is due, he refuses to pay until the work is done. The landlord refused, instead threatening the renter with eviction. Overcome with frustration, the renter threatens to hit him in the face. The renter is representative of poor African-American people who feel victimized by the society in which they live.
The landlord has been neglectful in his maintenance of the property and would rather find a new tenant than spend the time and money to make the necessary repairs. He represents the ruling class. Upon being threatened, he immediately calls the police, crying, "He's trying to ruin the government and overturn the land!" Here, Hughes makes the point that the renter has stepped out of what is perceived to be his proper place in the social order, an offense that is certain to be punished.
Upon the landlord raising the alarm, the police come, arrest the renter and have him put in an "iron cell," where he will await his hearing. The immediacy of the response suggests the wider society -- represented here by the police -- is eager to ensure everyone stays in their proper place. The social order, one which favors the privileged, is upheld.
Hughes ends the poem with the headline, "Man Threatens Landlord, Tenant Held No Bail, Judge Gives Negro 90 Days in County Jail." This ending is not surprising. The judge in the poem is a caricature of how the justice system often is perceived by people who have a history of abuse by that system.
Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.