Telephone Conversation By Wole Soyinka

What is the theme of the poem "Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka?

The primary theme of "Telephone Conversation" is racism. In the poem, a Black man tries to confirm a housing arrangement with a landlady over the phone. He wishes to inform the landlady that he is Black, and a ridiculous conversation ensues regarding how dark his skin color is. The poem is a tongue-in-cheek statement on racism, with the speaker responding with sarcasm and humor to the landlady's insulting questions. The poem also emphasizes the lack of communication between different races.

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The poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka describes a tense exchange between a potential landlord and tenant. Narrated from the prospective tenant’s point of view, this conversation reveals the ease with which people judge others—sight unseen—based on superficial details. Communication between the two characters is marred by personal bias and quick judgments based on surface appearances.

Before accepting the offer to view a vacant apartment, the speaker politely confesses, “Madam … I hate a wasted journey—I am African.” Accustomed to encountering racial prejudice, he seems to know the drill: forewarn a potential landlord of his skin color in order to preempt making a fruitless trip to see the place only to be turned down on sight. His “confession” is met with silence.

Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding.

The woman’s silence speaks volumes—is she innocently surprised or genuinely shocked and repelled? Is she reluctant to or no longer wants to rent her apartment to him? Her façade of propriety breaks down; her supposed “good-breeding” is “pressurized” or revealed to be artificial. Interestingly, the speaker himself immediately prejudges the woman from her

voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped.

Without even seeing her, he characterizes her as tacky, garish, pretentious, and nouveau riche. This image—whether accurate or not—is upheld by her brash and tactless questioning. After the awkward silence, she barks at him,

HOW DARK? … ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?

The woman offers only two overly simplistic and superficial choices (“Button B, Button A”) of color shades from which to gauge his character. When the speaker facetiously offers the more nuanced choices of “plain or milk chocolate,” she seems to try to regain a professional demeanor with

assent [that] was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality.

Yet her pretense of neutrality or “clinical impersonality” crumbles under the speaker’s pointedly specifically detailed response—“West African sepia.” This sardonic-sounding shade confuses her into more silence before

truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT'S THAT?” conceding
“DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.”

The speaker exposes the woman’s lack of sophistication and humor. When he tries to help her by comparing the tone to “brunette,” she still screeches questioningly,

THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?

Mockingly—yet truthfully—the speaker admits that his face is brunette but that his palms and foot soles are “peroxide blond.” He then adds that his bottom is “raven black” from sitting down.

Sensing the woman’s dismissal of him due to his skin color, he ends with

“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?”

In anticipation of her hanging up on him, he delivers a plea that can be seen as either a last appeal to see the vacancy or a final jab at her. He could be asking her to meet him in person instead of judging him after learning his skin color over the phone. On the other hand, he could be punctuating this increasingly awkward and offensive phone conversation with a sarcastic offer to show her his behind.

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The theme of Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" is the absurdity of racial prejudice, particularly its basis in skin color. The caller is obviously accustomed to dealing with racism. Before coming to see the property, he wearily informs the landlady that he is African, half expecting to be told that he need not bother coming. However, the response he receives is stranger than he expects. The landlady wants to know his precise skin tone.

While racism divides people into "them" and "us" by the use of sweeping designations such as black and white, skin color is clearly a continuum, which ironically, does not include either black or white. People of the same race have widely differing skin colors, and the color of the individual varies with exposure to the sun. The caller is driven to the absurdity of referring to his skin color as "West African sepia" and then to pointing out that different parts of his body are different shades. These descriptive strategies all make the same point, that skin color has no relation to any of the qualities a landlady might want in a tenant, such as reliability, honesty and cleanliness. There is also the irony that, instead of the landlady describing the accommodation to the tenant, the entire poem is spent on the irrelevant matter of the tenant describing his own physical appearance. This is emphasized by the final line.

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A key theme that emerges in this poem is the dehumanizing effects of racism.

As the speaker and the landlady engage in conversation about the rental property, the landlady detects nothing of the speaker's race. It is only when he "confesses" his race that she takes issue with the possible tenant who has contacted her. Instead of asking him suitable questions which a landlady might justifiably ask a tenant, such as his occupation or family situation or income, she reduces her inquiries to one simple aspect of his identity: race.

Her questions lean toward lunacy. She wants to know if he is "dark" or "very light," the questions screamed at the reader through all caps. She thus has attributed some sense of worth not only to the speaker's skin color but to the shade of that color. Seemingly, a "very light" skin tone might mean that he could be an acceptable tenant, but a dark-skinned person will not. She asks the question not just once—but twice.

The landlady's impersonal simplification of race is met with a much more complex response. The speaker tells her that he is "West African sepia." Of course, she has no idea how to begin processing this, and that is just the speaker's point. Race has no place in his evaluation as a potential suitable tenant.

As the speaker begs to be truly seen for who he is, which is far more than a shade of brown, the landlady prepares to slam the receiver in his ears. Thus, the poem ends with the white landlady ultimately holding the power of social justice as the speaker asserts his desire to be seen as more than only his race.

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"Telephone Conversation," by Wole Soyinka is about racism; more specifically, it is about the way people -- both white and black -- fail to communicate clearly about matters of race.

The narrator of the poem describes a telephone conversation in which he reaches a deal with a landlady to rent an apartment.  He feels that he must let her know that he is black:

Nothing remained
But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,
"I hate a wasted journey—I am African."

This is where the lapses in communication begin.  The landlady's first response is, "Silence. Silenced transmission of / Pressurized good breeding."  She next asks the ridiculous question, "'HOW DARK?...ARE YOU LIGHT/OR VERY DARK?'"

The narrator is "dumbfounded."  Instead of telling her, "It's none of your business," or simply, "Let's forget about the apartment," he offers a cryptic response: "'West Affrican sepia.'"

When the landlady asks for clarification, the narrator only confuses matters further:

Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond.

He makes matters even worse by saying that "friction" has somehow turned his buttocks "raven black."

(If you want to see an interesting discussion of how blacks and whites fail to communicate, follow the link below to Barack Obama's famous speech about race from March 2008.)

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