What is the critical overview of the poem ''Telephone Conversation'' by Wole Soyinka?
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.
"Telephone Conversation" is actually a biting satire against the racist attitudes of whites in the 20th century. Overtly, the poem deals with a black, educated man who is ringing up a white landlady about renting an apartment and, we assume, is not allowed to rent the apartment because of the colour of his skin. However, if we look a little deeper, we can view this poem as a biting satire that attacks and ridicules the social evil and human weakness of racial prejudice. Consider how Soyinka places an educated, clever black person against an ignorant and prejudiced white person. The poem, through this contrast, shows the ridiculous nature of any racist claims of white supremacy. The horrendous nature of the question of the landlady, "HOW DARK?... ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?", makes a mockery of "civilised values," as does the absurd way in which the speaker responds:
Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused--
Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black...
The insistence on the skin colour indicates that the landlady might accept a light-skinned tenant who could "pass" at being white. However, this only serves to increase her ignorance and insensitivity. The double meaning in the final, innocent question, "wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?", is hilarious because of the way that the speaker is actually asking the landlady if she wants to see his bottom to check the colour.
The poem "Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka uses irony to drive home the arbitrary and absurd nature of racism. In the phone conversation that the narrator has with his prospective landlady over the phone, she asks his skin color. The absurdity of having to define his skin color over the phone causes the narrator to try to define the colors and sights around him. He thinks, "Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered Omnibus squelching tar. It was real!" The colors are real around him, and he thinks that having to define his own color is real, too. The word "it" is deliberately ambiguous, meaning that not only the colors of the bus are real, but the racism that the narrator is experiencing is all too real.
The narrator then becomes involved in trying to describe to the landlady the different colors on his body, and the difficulty of defining his own color, including the lightness on his palms, reveals the ridiculous nature of having to characterize himself as one color. The absurdity of this exercise reveals the absurdity of racism and the color line.
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