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.
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:
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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