Telephone Conversation is a poetic satire against the widespread racism still prevalent in modern western society. As the title suggests, the poem depicts a telephone conversation between a West-African man and a British land-lady who shockingly changes her attitude towards the man soon after he reveals his racial identity.
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 toward others even without knowing him or her personally but just by having cognizance of the colour 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 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 colour 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.
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.
Wole Soyinka has mainly used two literary devices to deliver the message of anger and frustration towards racial discrimination at the micro-level of society. One is imagery; “lipstick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped” is the mental image of the lady made by the African speaker by just listening to her voice on the phone. His attitude towards her is that she is socially superior to him and from higher strata. The image of a huge bus crushing the black tar is highly symbolic of how the major White community dominates and insults the minor African community. He becomes so angry when she further asks about the darkness of his colour to confirm his identity that he sees red everywhere.
The other important poetic device is irony, which the poet uses in the poem. The irony lies in the fact that the lady has given an ad about the flat statement that the price is reasonable and indifferent. Indifferent in the case of the colour of the skin of any people, but when the African room seeker confesses about his identity, she holds silence and does not respond to him. Her words and action do not match. Her words appear to be liberal and generous, but the reality is that her action is full of hatred and indifference, just the opposite of her own words. This vehement irony is meant to attack the so-called social equality created by the Whites. The next irony is that the African speaker‘s confession about his identity to the white lady, which vividly shows his loser mentality and lack of confidence in his colour of the skin upon which he does not have any control. He has to be so meek and feel lower as if he has committed any crime.
The satiric voice in Soyinka’s poem is put in place through a series of linguistic and thematic juxtapositions. While the speaker notes that the landlady to whom he speaks is of “good-breeding” with a voice that is “lipstick-coated, long gold-rolled,” he is also quick to attach a series of words to her that carry an overabundance of negative connotations. She is described as “clinical” and as having a “light impersonality” to her demeanour. Elsewhere in the poem readers are told that her accent “clang[s]” and that her silences are “ill-mannered.” All of this takes place in a setting that is itself a circumstance that contributes to the satire, being described variously as “rancid” and as appealing as the sound and feel of “squelching tar.
Telephone conversation is excellent in its use of rich language and the timeless message it conveys, that is to avoid silent resignations to such policies of the racist society and also that intellectual superiority is not determined by racial colour.