The Voice of Harlem

The Harlem Renaissance is a large part of literary history in America.  One of the best known writers to arise from that movement is Langston Hughes.  Hughes, who grew up in a number of towns throughout the Midwest, first went to Harlem in 1920 for college and stayed until 1923.  He left to travel internationally following graduation, but returned in 1929.  In this time Langston Hughes developed his voice as a social justice poet.  Writing about the injustices in Harlem, Hughes displayed the prejudices surrounding him and other minorities.  One poem that exemplifies this is the Ballad of the Landlord:

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!

This poem provides unique access to the mounting frustration of a black man in the face of prejudice.  We see the speaker’s progression from frustrated, to violent, to imprisoned in a matter of eight stanzas. He covers the poor condition of housing, the overcharging, prejudiced landlords, the racially biased police, and the injustice of the law system. He does so in an almost sing-songy rhythm, with rhyming stanzas that allude to the event being seemingly formulaic and frequent.

Hughes was known for writing about the events that surrounded him daily, and his writings gave voice to the segregated and oppressed in Harlem.  This early work of Langston Hughes describing social injustice in Harlem, a local voice of outrage soon developed into a national one.  We see this in some of his later works, such as The South, Christ in Alabama, and I, Too, Sing America.

We can also see his impact on many other writers, even international ones, like Wole Soyinka in his poem “Telephone Conversation.”

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