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!

One comment

  1. Reading the poem “Ballad of the Landlord”by Robert Frost I feel very sad in mind.Any kind of discriminatio should be removed from the society.We should follow the quotation:”every man are equal before law”

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