Ballad of the Landlord Poem by Langston Hughes Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


Langston Hughes wrote the poem “The Ballad of the Landlord” in 1940. Hughes, one of the most well-known personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, drew inspiration from his own experiences growing up in the Harlem section of New York City. The speaker of the poem recalls his experience as a black renter attempting to convince his white landlord to make necessary, fundamental repairs to the rental home. Nevertheless, the landlord decides to unfairly take advantage of his tenant, the speaker, rather than address the necessary repairs. This is because he feels empowered by the strong standing society confers him as a presumably wealthy, white man living next to a black man.

About the poet

American poet, writer, dramatist, columnist, and social activist James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1901. His renowned article “The Negro Was in Vogue” made him an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes received his degree from Lincoln University after attending Columbia University. He wrote plays, short tales, and nonfiction works, as well as a weekly in-depth column for The Chicago Defender, the foremost black publication, which he used to support the campaign for civil rights.


Stanza 1

Landlord, landlord,

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don't you 'member I told you about it

Way last week?


In the opening lines of “Ballad of the Landlord,” the speaker informs the landlord about a roof leak. The tenant is reminded that they have already reported the problem. These lines express annoyance and urgency while drawing attention to the landlord’s apparent carelessness in taking care of the issue.


The speaker, who represents the tenant or oppressed class, and the landlord, who represents authority or power, are in conflict at the poem’s beginning. The speaker uses regular vocabulary to establish a sense of familiarity as they attempt to keep the landlord accountable for his obligations. The speaker’s frequent references to the leak as having occurred “way last week” imply that he has been waiting for a solution for a while, which highlights the landlord’s neglect or lack of interest. This interaction highlights the hardships and injustices experienced by marginalized populations and acts as a microcosm for the greater issue of social injustice and inequality. Through the straightforward act of reporting a leaky roof, the poem makes structural problems and power imbalances that sustain social and economic inequality evidently.

Stanza 2

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It's a wonder you don't fall down.


In the following lines, the speaker informs the landlord that the building’s steps are damaged. He expresses surprise that, given the state of the stairs, the landlord has not fallen himself. This emphasizes the landlord’s obvious disregard for the upkeep and security of the property.


The speaker addresses the landlord directly, focusing on the building’s deterioration and the owner’s disregard for the welfare of the tenants. “Landlord, landlord” is repeated frequently to point out the power dynamic and the tenant’s desire for the landlord’s attention. The speaker’s dissatisfaction is emphasized by the use of colloquial language, such as “these steps is broken down,” which adds authenticity. The speaker’s disbelief at the landlord’s disregard for safety dangers is implied by the claim that the landlord hasn’t injured himself. This sentence shows the irony of the landlord’s carelessness and the imbalance of power between the renter and the landlord.

Stanza 3

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten Bucks you say is due?

Well, that's Ten Bucks more'n I'l pay you

Till you fix this house up new.


The speaker reacts to the landlord’s allegation that he owes 10 dollars in these lines. The speaker adamantly declares that he will not make any payments until the landlord has properly fixed the property. The lines reflect the tenant’s anger over the landlord’s negligence and defiance in taking care of the maintenance issues.


The poem emphasizes the tense relationship that exists between a tenant and a landlord, with the tenant defending their legal rights and requesting improved living conditions. The phrase “Ten Bucks” is repeated several times to highlight the financial strain put on the renter by the property’s poor maintenance. As the speaker refuses to abide by the landlord’s demands until their issues are addressed, the use of colloquial language gives a feeling of resistance and resolve. The lines also emphasize the dynamics of power as the renter asserts their authority by delaying payment until the required repairs have been done. These expressions perfectly capture the tenant’s resistance to being exploited, the assertion of their rights, and the demand for landlord accountability. He conveys an effective message against injustice and promotes justice and decent living circumstances.

Stanza 4

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

You gonna cut off my heat?

You gonna take my furniture and

Throw it in the street?


The speaker addresses the implicit demands and threats made by the landlord in these lines. The speaker wonders if the landlord has any intentions to evict them, turn off their heat, or take their stuff and dump it on the road. The lines express the speaker’s resistance and reluctance to submit to the landlord’s threats or mistreatment.


The speaker emphasizes the power dynamic and conflict between the renter and landlord, challenging his authority and raising concerns about possible consequences. The speaker highlights the seriousness of the issue and the challenging reality that the tenant must deal with by asking hypothetical questions like “Will you get eviction orders?” and “Will you cut off my heat?” The speaker conjures up injustice and the probable loss of essentials and personal items through powerful imagery. By highlighting the disparity in authority between tenants and landlords, the speaker draws attention to the hardships experienced by marginalized people in their quest for justice and fair treatment. He also demands fundamental rights and dignified living circumstances.

Stanza 5

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.

Talk on-till you get through.

You ain't gonna be able to say a word

If I land my fist on you.


In these lines, the speaker vehemently rejects the landlord’s threats and arrogant demeanor. The speaker questions the landlord’s authority and threatens that if the landlord continues to antagonize them, they will not hesitate to resort to physical violence.


The speaker declares his own authority and dismisses the landlord’s remarks as meaningless. The speaker’s lack of respect for the landlord’s authority is evident in his response to the landlord’s remarks and his failure to pay attention to his assurances and warnings. The speaker feels attacked and obligated to defend their rights and dignity, and his willingness to use violence to defend himself shows his exasperation and rage. These lines highlight the speaker’s desire to speak up in the face of injustice, their refusal to be silent, and the topic of resistance and protest against oppression. The fear of violence highlights the despair and annoyance felt by those who are the targets of unfair treatment and discrimination. 

Stanza 6

Police! Police!

Come and get this man!

He's trying to ruin the government

And overturn the land!


In these lines, the speaker demands help from the police and accuses the landlord of trying to overthrow the system and incite rebellion. To fix the imbalance and hold the landlord responsible for his conduct, the speaker appeals to an outside authority.


The speaker’s direct approach to the landlord is changed in the poem to a request for support from others. The speaker, who wants justice and appeals to the established system of law and order, asks the police to investigate the landlord’s improper behavior. The speaker views the landlord’s actions as undermining established power structures and posing a danger to societal stability. Overturning the land is a metaphor that suggests turmoil and rebellion. Recognizing the disparity of power between him and the landlord, the speaker appeals for protection from the authorities and intervention.

Stanza 7

Copper's whistle!

Patrol bell!


Precinct Station.

Iron cell.

Headlines in press:





The speaker refers to the participation of the police, as well as the tenant’s eventual arrest and incarceration along these lines. The lines explain the actions taken by law enforcement, how the event was reported in the media, and how the case ended up in court with racially biased sentencing.


The poem emphasizes how the tension between the tenant and landlord grew, eventually requiring law enforcement and judicial action. The events and their effects are described by the speaker using clear and effective language. The call to action “Copper’s whistle!” and “Patrol bell!” indicate the approach of the police and the seriousness of the situation. The words “arrest. precinct station. iron cell” demonstrate the tenant’s involvement with the criminal justice system and draw attention to how harsh the legal system is. The event is shown in the media under the headline “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD / TENANT HELD NO BAIL,” which draws attention to the institutionalized unfairness and racial prejudice that marginalized people experience in the judicial system. 

The last phrase, “JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!” highlights the widespread racism and injustice present in society by exposing the prejudice and inequality present in the legal system. These lines add to the broader issue of economic disparity and racial injustice by encouraging readers to consider the unfair treatment that marginalized populations experience.