The poem is quite short and to the point. It is a fast read, meaning that it’s helpful to go back and consider the lines more than once. Hughes imbued each line with a great deal of meaning that may not be obvious when one first reads the lines of ’50-50.’ Readers should also consider whether or not the relationship the man is looking for in this piece is truly “50-50” or if it’s something else.
The female speaker starts out the poem mournfully wondering why she doesn’t have anyone to share her bed or hold her hand. She doesn’t have a man, and that bothers her. A male speaker picks up the lines next, telling her that she doesn’t have a “head,” and that’s the issue. If she were smart enough, she’d know what she needed to do to attract a man. She, in her desperation, asks him to tell her exactly what it is that she needs to do. In the final stanza, he tells her that she needs to share her bed and her money. The latter is emphasized, suggesting that what the man can take from the woman is what’s really important.
You can read the full poem here.
I’m all alone in this world, she said,
Ain’t got nobody to share my bed,
I ain’t got no man.
In the first lines of ’50-50,’ the speaker, a woman, begins by describing the main issue in her mind. She’s “all alone in this world.” She’s talking, it seems, to no one in particular but someone, “Big Boy,” answers in the second stanza. She’s worried because she’s alone with no one to share her bed or hold her hand. She doesn’t have a man, and at this moment, she only considers the negatives of this state of being.
Big Boy opened his mouth and said,
Trouble with you is
You could have me with you
All the time.
In the second stanza of ’50-50,’ the female speaker gets a response. Big Boy, someone who heard her words, responds and tells her that the reason she’s alone is that she “ain’t got no head.” This line is an example of a specific dialect that helps readers place the speaker in a place and time. Dialect can also reveal information about someone’s culture and identity. Through the gruffness of his words, readers are likely to be immediately put off by Big Boy. His words are demanding and overly sure of themselves.
He tells the previous speaker that she could have him with her all the time if she only used her mind. His rudeness makes it immediately apparent that he’s someone that most people probably wouldn’t want to have in their lives.
Stanzas Three and Four
She answered, Babe, what must I do?
And your money, too.
She calls him “Babe” in the third stanza. This suggests that maybe she is interested in hearing him out and figuring out what she has to do to find a life partner. He answers her in the fourth stanza. He tells her that if she wants him in her bed and as a companion, she has to share her bed as well as her money.
It’s at this point that the nature of this possible relationship is revealed in full. The male speaker wants to share, 50-50 (or very likely more), of what the woman has. She is going to have to, in his mind, be okay with this if she’s ever going to find a partner.
Structure and Form
’50-50’ by Langston Hughes is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza is five lines long, the second: six, the third: one, and the fourth: two. The poem is written in free verse. This means that there is no specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that unifies the lines. Despite this, there are numerous examples of rhyme. For instance, “bed” and “said” in stanza one.
Throughout ’50-50,’ Hughes makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “hold” and “hand” in line three of stanza one and “Big Boy” at the beginning of stanza two.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of stanza one as well as lines two and three of stanza two.
- Dialogue: poets use dialogue when they want to create a conversation within their verse. In this case, the poem is almost entirely made up of piece of dialogue between the female speaker and the male.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. In this case, the poet uses “Ain’t got nobody to” at the beginning o lines two and three.
The purpose is to emphasize the difficulty in relationships, especially for the female partner. The female speaker is looking for a companion, but the man she’s talking to is looking for whatever benefits he can get from a potential partner. These include sex and money.
The conversation is about what a woman needs to do to get a man. The male speaker has a very strong opinion about what the woman needs to do, and he delivers it with memorable rudeness and gruffness.
The themes are relationships and equality. Without saying so explicitly, the poet was interested in exploring the dynamic between men and women and what women contend with when seeking out a partner. Big Boy exemplifies the negatives in committing oneself to a partner.
The tone is in part desperate and sorrowful and, in part, determined and direct. The second speaker, Big Boy, knows what he wants and demands it from the more sorrowful female speaker without attempting to obscure his gruffness.
The meaning is that relationships are difficult for women seeking an equal partnership. The male speaker alludes to the fact that no only will the woman have to share her money and bed, but even more than half of what she has.
Readers who enjoyed ’50-50’ should also consider reading some other Langston Hughes poems. For example:
- ‘Mother to Son’ – one of Hughes’ most famous poems. It uses the metaphor of a staircase to depict the difficulties and dangers one will face in life.
- ‘Daybreak in Alabama’ – tries to create a harmonious world by creating music of equality and brotherhood.
- ‘Dreams’ – focuses on the grand importance of dreams and how one should never let them go.