Wole Soyinka

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Is "Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka a poem about racism?

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"Telephone Conversation" remarks on the absurdity of racism by pointing out the wide variation in skin color, even within one human body. This makes it impossible to divide people into the simple categories of "Black" and "white."

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The central conceit of Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" is to examine racism purely as an obsession with the exact color of a person's skin. It is normal to talk as though "Black" and "white" are clear, mutually exclusive categories. However, although the conversation the speaker has with his potential landlady is clearly ludicrous, it effectively brings out an important truth. No one has skin that is perfectly Black or white. Instead, people come in a vast range of colors, meaning that skin color is a continuum rather than a binary opposition. The speaker tells the lady that different parts of his body are different colors and describes his overall skin tone lyrically as "West African sepia." These rhetorical strategies destabilize the very idea of skin color.

Ironically, the landlady, though logically inconsistent, appears to be less racist than others the speaker has met. He tells her that he is African because he wants to avoid "a wasted journey." This suggests that he would not be at all surprised if she simply refused to rent accommodation to a Black person. Her unexpected determination to interrogate him about how Black he is exposes the absurdity both of her criteria and of the prejudices the speaker has previously encountered and has now come to expect.

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