Set in the 1960s, written in the first person narrative manner, the poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka is a poetic satire against the widespread racism in the modern Western society. As a student from Nigeria, the poet had encountered firsthand such parochial attitude, and had learnt to take it in his stride, the poem is thus influenced by his personal experience. The poem is about a telephone conversation in England between the poet, seeking to rent a house and an English landlady who completely changes her attitude towards him after he reveals his identity as a black African.
The motif of a microcosmic telephone conversation, therefore, is employed by the poet to apply to a much broader, macrocosmic level where racial bigotry is ridiculed in a contest of human intelligence, highlighting the poet’s witticism as well as his ingenious sense of humour. As the title reveals, two people are talking on the phone, a man looking for accommodation speaking with a prospective landlady. The beginning of the poem is on a serene note, there is no indication of the tension that follows later.
The man is searching for a house and the landlady has named a price. As the poet has no locational preference, he finds the rent asked, quite reasonable. He could enjoy his privacy since the landlady does not live under the same roof. The African man is ready to accept the offer, but maybe there has been a similar incident in his past, for he stops and admits to her that he is black, saying he prefers not to waste the time travelling there if she’s going to refuse him on that ground.
The poet’s use of the word “confession” to describe an announcement of his ethnic identity is sarcastic, being an African seems to be a sin which he had committed at birth, and which he needed to atone for throughout his life. In the ensuing silence, his prior experience of racism makes him intuitively feel that the lady’s good-breeding was preventing her from turning him down instantaneously. This he describes in his distinct manner of sharp humour, as if under a potential difference of pressure, a whole lot of politeness is being silently transmitted down the telephone wires.
When the lady finally speaks, her voice is no longer warm and welcoming. She sounded very much like a member of high society, ladies who smoked cigarettes through long golden holders, clamped between lipstick-coated lips, pinched and disdainful, like those of the snobbish people of the times. Such evocative language which greatly appeals to our sensory impression conveys the poet’s power of imagination dissecting the sound of an affluent landlady’s voice. The use of subtly imagistic language is abundantly rich throughout the poem. “HOW DARK? These two words focus on the intensity of the deep rooted malaise/prejudice. Being rejected as an African, the landlady holds out a sliver of chance …. A lighter shade of skin colour might be acceptable. As in different buttons of the telephone in front of him … Button B, Button A, dark, lighter, fair – humans are categorized too like inanimate objects. The poet feels the familiar putrid smell of decaying humanity, which forces men to be polite, hide their racism from their words but still hold on to old prejudices and hurt another person without concern.
Illustrative fragments, “Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered / Omnibus squelching tar”, is used to describe the poet’s frantic attempt to ascertain the situation. The diction “red”, which is connotative of anger and disturbance, is used three times to highlight the extreme mental discomfort of an African man. The city buses are referred humorously as the idiomatic “omnibus”. Such extensive use of symbolically chromatic images points out the setting of this poem, for the first and only time, to be London.
Hereby arises a sense of irony. As the place where he was facing such ostentatious racism is London, a city seen as a symbol of the developed western world, where equality and justice are supposedly valued above all. “It was real! ” the exclamation only serves to emphasize his bewilderment at the situation. Soon, however, an indifferent voice clarifies that the lady is indeed interested in knowing the actual colour of his complexion.
As the sheer insensitive callousness dawns on the poet, he disregards all constraints of formality and mocks her outright, he replies “West African Sepia… Down in my passport”, the landlady considers the colour spectrum, but comes up blank, she is forced to admit her lack of knowledge. The instant superiority the poet exhibits over the landlady in this part of the conversation demonstrates the obvious difference in their education and knowledge, also illustrating the fact that beyond the landlady’s lavish exterior, she was simply a shallow judgmental racist.
African Sepia, brunette … the words fall on deaf ears, as the landlady is stuck with the word “DARK”. “HOW DARK”, “OR VERY DARK”, “ARE YOU DARK”, “THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT? ” …. She keeps on harping on a single word “DARK”. The poet clarifies on an impudent note, saying that he isn’t all black, the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands are completely fair, a peroxide blonde, but his bottom has been rubbed darkest shade of black due to friction from sitting for a longtime. His outrage makes him sarcastic, bordering on vulgarity.
As he senses that she is about to slam the receiver on him, the poet pleads with her in pseudo-politeness, to atleast see for herself; but the receiver on the other end was already in its cradle. The quasi politeness of the tone the poet uses here can hardly conceal the ultimate insult, which shows how indignant the man was as he outwitted her by inviting her to see his bottom, thus ending the poem on a triumphant note as the poet’s sense of humour and intelligence helps him overcome his pain and anger and assists him in turning the table on yet another white racist.
Wole Soyinka uses two main literary devices to drive home the message of the poem. The first of the two is imagery. Right at the beginning, the imagery used to describe the mental image the man has of the woman: “lipstick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped”, just from listening to her voice shows one that he thinks that she is, socially speaking above him, from a higher social class. When he hears her question regarding how dark he is, he is so humiliated and angry that he sees red everywhere.
The imagery of the huge bus squelching the black tar is symbolic of how the dominant white community treats those belonging to the minor black one. The next most evident use is that of irony. In the beginning of the poem, the African says that he has to “self-confess” when he reveals his skin color to the lady. The color of his skin is something that he has no control over, and even if he did, it is not a sin to be dark skinned, so the fact that the man feels ashamed and sorry for this is ironical and casts light on how ridiculous racism is that one should apologize or be differentiated against solely because of the color of one’s skin.
Also, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has actually committed no mistakes. On the other hand, the lady is continuously described in positive terms, suggesting that she is of a good breeding and upper class. Even when the reader finds out that she is a shallow and racist person who exhibits extreme insensitivity by asking crude questions, the man seems to think that she is ‘considerate; and her clinical response to his question shows only ‘light impersonality. ’ The repeated and exaggerated