20 April XXXX
Opposing Voices in “Ballad of the Landlord”
Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord” is narrated through four voices, each with its own perspective on the poem’s action. These opposing voices—of a tenant, a landlord, the police, and the press—dramatize a black man’s experience in a society
Peel’s main idea.
dominated by whites.
The main voice in the poem is that of the tenant, who, as
the last line tells us, is black. The tenant is characterized by his informal, nonstandard speech. He uses slang (“Ten Bucks”), contracted words (’member, more’n), and nonstandard grammar
Details from the
(“These steps is broken down”). This colloquial English suggests the tenant’s separation from the world of convention, represented by the formal voices of the police and the press, which appear later in the poem.
Although the tenant uses nonstandard English, his argument
is organized and logical. He begins with a reasonable complaint and a gentle reminder that the complaint is already a week old: “My roof has sprung a leak. / Don’t you ’member I told you about it / Way last week?” (lines 2-4). In the second stanza, he appeals diplomatically to the landlord’s self-interest: “These steps is broken down. / When you come up yourself / It’s a wonder you don’t fall down” (6-8). In the third stanza, when the landlord has responded
The first citation to
lines of the poem
includes the word
citations from the
poem are cited with
line numbers alone.
to his complaints with a demand for rent money, the tenant
becomes more forceful, but his voice is still reasonable: “Ten Bucks
Marginal annotations indicate MLA-style formatting and effective writing. Source: Diana Hacker (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006). This paper has been updated to follow the style guidelines in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (2009).
you say is due? / Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you / Till you fix this house up new” (10-12).
focuses on an
The fourth stanza marks a shift in the tone of the argument. At this point the tenant responds more emotionally, in reaction to the landlord’s threats to evict him. By the fifth stanza, the tenant has unleashed his anger: “Um-huh! You talking high and mighty” (17). Hughes uses an exclamation point for the first time; the tenant is raising his voice at last. As the argument gets more heated, the tenant finally resorts to the language of violence: “You ain’t gonna be able to say a word / If I land my fist on you” (19-20).
Transition prepares readers for
the next topic.
These are the last words the tenant speaks in the poem.
Perhaps Hughes wants to show how black people who threaten
violence are silenced. When a new voice is introduced—the
landlord’s—the poem shifts to a frantic tone:
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land! (21-24)
This response is clearly an overreaction to a small threat.
Instead of dealing with the tenant directly, the landlord shouts
for the police. His hysterical voice—marked by repetitions and punctuated with exclamation points—reveals his disproportionate fear and outrage. And his conclusions are equally excessive: This black man, he claims, is out to “ruin the government” and “overturn the land.” Although the landlord’s overreaction is humorous, it is sinister as well, because the landlord knows that, no matter how excessive his claims are, he has the police and the law on his side.
Source: Diana Hacker (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006).
In line 25, the regular meter and rhyme of the poem break
down, perhaps showing how an arrest disrupts everyday life. The “voice” in lines 25-29...