Written in the first person narrative form, “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka grapples with the issue of racism, that being a completely obnoxious human attribute that can be seen lurking within the minds of countless individuals. The poet has placed before his audience a telephonic conversation between a white landlady and an African man, with the latter looking for a place to rent. The poem is a mighty comment on racism and related prejudices that still exist like a millstone. The idea behind the writing of “Telephone Conversation” could be the simple truth that human beings are always inclined to focus and sort out issues based on individual differences, which seldom give them the chance to look into the souls of themselves and determine how far they have deteriorated within themselves.
This poem is a splendid example of how a simple communication exercise can be adversely affected if the focus shifts from the important matter at hand to recognizable external differences between the participants, leading to the creation of resistance. Consequently, resistance leads to friction between individuals and gives a body blow to any possible chances of bond-formation between human beings. Also, important in this case is to note how Wole Soyinka uses words dipped in racism to create a memorable impact in the minds of the readers and forces everyone to think about the external world out there which is real and happening.
About the Author
Akinwande Oluwole ‘Wole’ Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is one of the brightest Nigerian writers of his generation and the first person from Africa and the diaspora to be honored with a Nobel Prize in Literature (1986).
During the reign of General Sani Abacha (r. 1993–98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria via the ‘Nadeco Route’ on a motorcycle. Abacha had proclaimed a death sentence on him in absentia.
Summary of “Telephone conversation”
In the poem “Telephone Conversation”, the poet Wole Soyinka talks principally about two strangers speaking over the telephone and the resulting revelations which come to the fore concerning the attitudes some people have on others even without knowing him or her personally but just by having cognizance of the color of his or her skin. The initial lines make the readers aware of the reason behind the black-African man’s arrival at the phone booth, that is to call a possible would-be landlady. The price of the room and the location, among other essentials, are agreeable to the man. During the course of the dialogue, the man gets to know that his privacy would not be hampered as the landlady does not stay on the premises. Then the moment comes when the man has made up his mind to consider the offer. But right before he declares his interest in renting the place, he mentions to the white lady that he is black. At the other end of the line, the immediate response is nothing but silence. The African man takes it to be an impolite gesture of refusal.
However, the silence is soon broken as the landlady starts to speak again, and asks him to explain exactly how dark he is. At first, the man thinks that he might have misheard the question but when the landlady repeats the same, he understands that it is something very important for her to know before she allows him to rent her house. This came out to be entirely devastating for the man, and for a moment he felt disgusted with the question and fancies himself to be a machine, like a phone, and that he has been reduced to being a button on that very phone. He could also smell the stench from her words and sees “red” all around him.
The idea behind “Telephone Conversation” is to depict how brutal and devastating it can be for a man who is subjected to racial discrimination. Thoughts of racism and preconceived notions come blended with an element of irony. The black-African man is reduced to shame by the sudden silence from the other side and he gets into a state of make-belief when he sarcastically thinks that the lady has broken her silence and has given him the option to define “how dark” he is. “Like chocolate, or dark or light?”. Then, he goes on to answer that his skin color can be pictured as “West African sepia”. The lady, not knowing how dark it could be, does not want to embarrass the man further by resorting to silence. So, she asks him to define what he means. The man replies that it is almost similar to being a brunette, but a dark brunette.
All this while, the man has been holding on to codes of formality which breaks down at the landlady’s insensitivity. The African man now shouts out loud saying that he is black but he is not that black for anyone to be put to shame. He also says that the soles of his feet and the palms of his hand are all white, but he is a fool to sit on his rear as a result of which it has turned black due to friction. He knows that the landlady will never be convinced with his black complexion and he senses that she might slam down the receiver anytime. At such a crucial juncture, he makes a desperate and silly attempt pleading her to come and take a good look at him but could not prevent the situation from getting any better. Finally, the landlady slams down the receiver on his face.
Theme of Telephone conversation
The theme of “Telephone Conversation” rests upon the conflict between the protagonist i.e. the black man, and the absurdity of racism that makes the antagonist i.e. the white landlady, take a negative stance towards the former. The problem begins with the protagonist’s confession of being a black African man, which reveals the racist inclinations of the white lady. The fear of being judged on the merit of being a black man puts forth a highly corrupt image of the society where individuality is at stake.
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