Langston Hughes' Poetry: Analyzing Themes of Racism

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Langston Hughes

Throughout many of Langston Hughes' poetry, there seems to be a very strong theme of racism. Poems such as "Ballad of the Landlord", "I, Too", and "Dinner Guest: Me" are some good examples of that theme. The "Ballad of the Landlord" addresses the issue of prejudice in the sense of race as well as class. The lines "My roof has sprung a leak. / Don't you 'member I told you about it/ Way last week?" (Hughes 2/4) show the reader that the speaker, the tenant, is of a much lower class than his landlord. It also shows that the landlord could care less of what condition his building is in as long as the money is still coming in. "Well, that's Ten Bucks more'n I'll pay you / Till you fix this house up new." (Hughes 11/12) shows that the speaker may be cleverer than originally thought because he is hitting the landlord right where it hurts: his wallet. At this point it seems that the speaker may actually win and get his home fixed up, until he threatens the landlord in fifth stanza. That's when it all turns around. The landlord uses that threat to get the speaker, who we now find out, is black, thrown in jail. Richard K. Barksdale wrote "in 1940, ['Ballad of the Landlord'] was a rather innocuous rendering of an imaginary dialogue between a disgruntled tenant and a tight-fisted landlord." He then goes on to comment about the literature having once again pitted the haves against the have-nots. According to him, the landlord / tenant confrontation was "just another instance of the social malevolence of a system that punished the powerless and excused the powerful." He says that Hughes' tone of dry irony leads us to suspect that he "deliberately overstated a situation and that some sardonic humor was supposed to be squeezed out of the incident…" When this poem was written in the 1940's it showed an incident that was very likely to happen in American urban life. By the 1960's it had incited a political revolt and promoted civil unrest as a...
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