She said she is alone in the world and there is no one to share her bed or to hold her hand. The truth is that she has no man. Big Boy says that the trouble with her is that she “ain’t got no head!” If she had a sound mind, she could have him with her all the time. She replies, “Babe, what must I do?” He responds that she must share her bed and her money, too.
Hughes wrote the poem "50-50" during the later part of his career. The poem reveals a dismal reality and avoids any superfluities of hope or optimism. Its structure and content is reminiscent of the blues, particularly the songs of female singers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Billie Holiday.
The dual speakers in this poem are a woman and a man. The woman is mournful, complaining that she is alone in the world. She has no one to be intimate with, whether that means sharing her bed or simply holding her hand. Then, Big Boy, the male character, answers by telling her that she is silly, and if she would just use her head, she could have him with her all the time.
Big Boy's words might seem playful and flirtatious if not for the final exchange between the two characters. When the woman implores, "Babe, what must I do?" Big Boy answers her with the suggestion that she should share her bed and her money too. It is clear that he is only interested in her body and her financial assets, and the relationship suddenly starts to appear desperate and squalid.
This poem represents Hughes's shifting presentation of Harlem in his later work. The critic Arthur P. Davis explains that as much as Langston Hughes loved and explored Harlem, he also critiqued it later on in his career. In Hughes's early work, he depicts Harlem as it was during the height of the Harlem Renaissance – glittering, vibrant, creative, and chaotic. During the 1920s, Hughes lived and worked in Harlem, and celebrated the neighborhood's renowned nightlife and heightened aura of creativity.
Davis notes, "This cabaret Harlem, this Jazzonia is a joyous city, but the joyousness is not unmixed; it has a certain strident and hectic quality, and there are overtones of weariness and despair." In Hguhes's early poems, the jazz never stops and the daylight is just a brief respite before night starts up again. However, this celebration of Harlem's vibrancy does not take into account the lives of everyday people who live there.
By the 1940s, though, Harlem had changed. The Depression ended the Renaissance and Harlem's residents felt marginalized. After the race riots, the inhabitants felt like like "beaten people." Of "50-50," Davis writes, "Harlem love has lost its former joyous abandon, and the playboy of the cabaret era has become a calculating pimp who wants to 'share your bed / And your money too.'" The time for riotous fun and endless parties has passed, and now, the despair and disillusionment have taken hold.