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
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
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
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.