Wole Soyinka penned "Telephone Conversation" in 1960 while living in England, and it stands as a criticism of the racism he faces as a Nigerian while living at that time and in that culture.
The speaker of the poem is in need of a place to live and finds one that has a reasonable price. The location seems "indifferent," indicating that he doesn't think there are any particularly strong racist tendencies in that area. In the spirit of full disclosure, he decides to share with the landlady that he is African.
It is important to reflect on the title's significance here. This is no "conversation" at all as the landlady is unwilling to speak in anything besides fragments. Therefore, the entire poem is an ironic reflection of the title.
He is met with "Silence. Silenced transmission of pressurized good-breeding." This is juxtaposed with the actual statement that follows to show the irony of this statement regarding "good breeding." The landlady's actual words are "HOW DARK."
Thinking he could not possibly have heard correctly, he pauses. She clarifies, "'ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?" He likens this question much to a machine. Press A for one choice. Press B for a different choice.
And somehow, not just the color of his skin but the shade of that color makes a difference. He begins to see red in the world around him, symbolizing anger and the color of blood. Not knowing how to answer this question (After all, what IS light? What shade constitutes DARK?), he answers, "West African sepia," and the landlady says that she doesn't even know what that is.
This signifies the ignorance of the racism. She does not care about heritage. She cannot even grasp what a West African might visually look like. Her superficial ideas regarding race leave her blind to anything else.
Irony is also evident in the exchange of conversation. While the speaker treats the landlady with polite conversation, she (a woman he describes as "considerate") treats him with scorn and prejudice. Despite his own attempts to be gracious in the exchange, he has the receiver slammed in his ear.
"Telephone Conversation" is a reminder that people can act with ridiculous scorn about cultures which they do not understand.