Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ballad of the spam mail

I taught Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord,” walked back to my office, checked my mail. In the spam folder: two eviction notices. That’s a new low in spam.

Why is it the ballad of the landlord, when twenty of the poem’s thirty-three lines are spoken by a tenant? Because it’s the landlord’s story that the poem tells. It’s the landlord’s world, so to speak: we just live in it, or get evicted from it. The poem's primary speaker ends up in a newspaper headline as a “Negro” serving ninety days in jail. No headline about the dilapidated condition of the landlord’s property.

And by the way, landlord is such a strange word for use in a democratic society, isn’t it?

“Ballad of the Landlord” has a famous place in the history of American teaching: in 1965 the writer Jonathan Kozol was fired from his job as a Boston substitute-teacher after teaching the poem to fourth-graders. According to Kozol’s principal, the poem “could be interpreted as advocating defiance of authority.” The principal also deemed Kozol lacking in “the personal discipline to abide by rules and regulations, as we all must in our civilized society.” That’s the language of the Boston Public Schools in quotation marks. Kozol tells the story in his first book, Death at an Early Age (1967).

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