Langston Hughes: The Ballad of the Landlord 1


One of the sad epithets of Property is the way claims to entitlements are used to shape human relations — particularly racial human relations.   Langston Hughes wrote about the unfair inequality between black tenants and white landlords in his poem, The Ballad of the Landlord published in 1940.  He tips us off as to who is ultimately victorious in societies eyes with his poem – the lazy landlord who collects rent without taking care of his property.  There has been a traditional thought that racial minorities negatively impact property values. This traditional belief was captured in the law’s reluctance to force property owners to financially improve the living conditions that minority groups lived in.  The ballad suggests that the landlord is victimized when the tenant takes out his aggression on him in the end.  Ironically, the landlord is victor in all things — the courts, the avoidance of basic human responsibility, etc…., while merely suffering a slight bruise at the hands of the person he has inflicted arguably more harm to.    Moreover, notice the response of the landlord when assailed — the assault by the tenant is not merely a response to protect his property; its a challenge to the basic security of the nation.  How little times have changed.

It was not until the 1960′s that the courts began slowly recognizing a remedy in the form of a warranty of habitability. One of the earliest expressions was from the Wisconsin Supreme court in a case titled Pines v. Perssion, 111 N.W. 409 (1961).  The case involved four University of Wisconsin students who leased a house that they later discovered had electrical, plumbing, and heating defects.  They later vacated the premises and brought suit to recover money already paid.  In the case, the court said:

To follow the old rule of no implied warranty of habitability in leases would, in our opinion, be inconsistent with the current legislative policy concerning housing standards.  The need and social desirability of adequate housing for people in this era of rapid population increases is too important to be rebuffed by that obnoxious legal cliche, caveat emptor. Permitting landlords to rent “tumble-down” houses is at least a contributing cause of such problem as urban blight, juvenile delinquency, and high property taxes for conscientious land owners.”

We know that the housing market (particularly the leasing market) tends to impact racial minorities with issues of adequate housing more than white people.  Part of the impact is certainly due to household economics.  For example Brophy et al, point out the disproportionate  number of minority households affected by lead poisoning in a note of their case book Integrating Spaces.  We’ve blogged about Integrating Spaces before here.  Brophy writes about disproportionate treatment of minorities in led poisoning cases:

According to a survey conducted from 1999-2002, “non-Hispanic blacks and Mexican Americans had higher percentages of elevated blood lead levels (1.4% and 1.5% respectively) than non-Hispanic whites (0.5%).  Among subpopulations, non-Hispanic blacks aged 1-5 years  and aged [greater than] 60 years had the highest prevalence of elevated blood lead levels (3.1% and 3.4% respectively).

These facts only make Langston Hughes’ poem The Ballad of the Landlord all the more relevant.

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.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.What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?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.Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

Epilogue

This poem made the news when a Virginia teacher requested an African American student read the poem “blacker.”  Kudos to the young man for refusing!

Race Nuisance and American Jazz 1


Today in Property we discussed how nuisance is shaped by racial attitudes of the day.  We are using Al Brophy, Alberto Lopez and Kali Murray’s Integrating Spaces: Property Law and Race case book as a supplement to Dukeminier.  One of the cases we covered today was Truehart v. Parker, 257 S.W. 640 (Tex. Civ. App. 1923).  The case involved an Jazz Hall in San Antonio, Texas and a white property owner adjacent to the operation.   As Amy Leigh Wilson suggests in her article A Unifying Theme or a Path to Degregation: The Jazz Influence in American Property Law, 55 Alabama L. Rev. 425 (2004), jazz was commonly feared.  As one writer said, Jazz was – among other things – a century-long political conversation between Black Americans and White Americans. It was a musical, intellectual and spiritual conversation within a highly politicized social context whose axes were language, race and power.  Thus, the court’s describes of the sounds emanating from the Jazz Hall is this fashion:

No self-respecting citizen with a home in which lives his wife and children could fail to be disturbed by the proximity of a place of assemblage at night of men and women, who to the accompaniment of screeching pianos, high keyed violins, and blaring saxophones, emitting the strains of barbaric jazz, more discordant than tom-tom or Chinese gong, transform rest and slumber into a nightmare, and render hideous the hours set apart by nature for their enjoyment.

This passage draws on a larger point made by Lawrence Levine in his article Jazz and American Culture, published in The Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 102, No. 403 1989).  There he argues that the words Jazz and Culture became at the turn of the twentieth century negative referents for each other:

One could understand what culture was by looking at the characteristics of jazz, and reversing them.  Jazz was, or at least seemed to be, the new product of a new age; Culture was, or at least seemed to be, traditional — the creation of centuries.  Jazz was raucous, discordant; Culture was harmonious, embodying order and reason.  Jazz was accessible, spontaneous; Culture was exclusive, complex available only through hard study and training.

Jazz was openly an interactive, participatory music in which the audience played an important role, to the extent that the line between audience and performers was often obscured.  Culture built those lines painstakingly, establishing boundaries that relegated the audience to a primarily passive role, listening to, or looking at the creations of true artists.  Culture increased the gap between the creator and the audience; jazz narrowed that gap.  Jazz was frequently played in the midst of noisy, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, dancing and gyrating audiences.  Those who came to witness culture in art museums, symphonic halls, opera houses, learned what Richard Sennett has called “silence in the face of art.”

Jazz obtained a particular association as dissident music.  From Wilson’s comment:

 In 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the twenties “the Jazz Age,” a title that succinctly expresses the post-war revolt which typified the decade. This revolt occurred primarily in the homes of middle-and upper-class white Americans, where jazz was drawn on to cope with evolving lifestyles.  More specifically, white youths used this music to champion social rebellion and critique stringent adult standards.  While this movement eventually changed Americans’ identity and values, it did not go unchallenged. The prohibition of liquor sales in 1920 signaled that reactionary opponents would counter the “jazz movement” throughout the decade. Fearful of the emerging behavior of emboldened youths, Americans “condemned jazz as a symbol of the violation of tradition and morality.”

Jazz’s appeal to the white youth of the 1920s coupled with its aggressively irreverent and suggestive sounds made it a topic of controversy. Jazz music “was condemned by conservatives as the downfall of America’s white youth.” Newspapers, magazines, and outspoken leaders of the day made quite a case for the corruptive effects of jazz: A minister declared that “in 1921-22 jazz had caused the downfall of 1,000 girls in Chicago alone.” Henry Ford attacked “the waves upon waves of musical slush that invaded decent parlors and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons.” John McMahon, writing in the Ladies Home Journal, condemned “The Jazz Path to Degradation,” asked “Is Dance Ruining Our Youth?” and yearned for a return “Back to Pre-War Morals.”
Today, Jazz has reached a cultural affinity, being described by one writer as like simultaneously hearing all the footsteps on the sidewalk of a city – feet shuffle, run, stroll, trip, and strut.  Its unordered and unruly.  And for people accustomed to order and ruliness, its, perhaps, a nuisance.
So what are we to make of cases like Truehart and the role of nuisance.  In the Truehart case, it is difficult to perceive the court in anyway other than Jazz-hostile.   Here the court evaluates claims by the plaintiffs and the evidence posed by the defense:
The dance was known as the Silver Leaf Club. No one swore that the music and voices in the hall could not be heard in the home of appellant.  Several witnesses swore that they could be heard., and there was ample testimony to show that the street in front f appellant’s house was nightly almost blocked by automobiles  and that their honking and other noises were very disagreeable and disturbing. All of the witnesses for the [dance club] were either patrons of the dance hall, or women there to control the female dancers and others interested in the affairs of the dance hall.  They were not disturbed of course.  They went there to dance, to hear the roar of the drums, and the music of the fiddle and the saxophone.   It was either their business or their pleasure to be there and they were not disturbed.  The people who lived in their homes in the immediate vicinity , however, swore, and no one contradicted them, that until the din and noise had died out because the dancers had dispersed, sleep was driven away and the night robbed of its rest and comfort.  To those that business or pleasure had lured to the dance, it was a terpsichorean dream of pleasure, while to the unfortunate denizens of the homes nearby, it was a terrible nightmare, and while the dancers chased the fleeting hours with flying feet to the sensuous strains of dance hall music, the residents tossed upon sleepless beds.
Notice that the court unquestionably accepts the testimony offered on behalf of the homeowners, while suggesting that the testimony on behalf of the club is somehow less than reliable.   There is no perception that the homeowner’s have any stake at all in this matter, other than the stakes that we would all find acceptable — preserving the night for the natural confines of rest. Moreover, the opinion seems to highlight cultural elitism — referring to Jazz and dancing as a “terpsichorean dream of pleasure” seems to suggest a nefarious role for Jazz and dance hall adherents.   It also speaks to the political presumptions made about Jazz regardless of who was there — white or black.   The progressive leanings of Jazz adherents bucked directly against and were counter-cultural to the primary activity of the culture — quiet, rest and sleep.  Part of the fear of Jazz stemmed from the fear of the unknown — which was highly symbolic given the way Jazz is played.  “Jazz,” observed Louis Armstrong, is music that’s never played the same way once….”

So perhaps, nuisance, like culture is merely a referent for the things we accept or don’t accept.   One student this morning described nuisance as “anything I don’t approve of, as long as enough people agree with me.”  That does not seem to be too far off.

Image curtesy of MassCommons.