Response – Telephone Conversation
Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka uses irony to depict the absurdity of racism in his poem, "Telephone Conversation." The speaker of the poem, a dark West African man searching for a new apartment, tells the story of a telephone call he made to a potential landlady. Instead of discussing price, location, amenities, and other information significant to the apartment, they discussed the speaker's skin color. The landlady is described as a polite, well-bred woman, even though she is shown to be shallowly racist. The speaker is described as being genuinely apologetic for his skin color, even though he has no reason to be sorry for something which he was born with and has no control over. In this short poem, we can see that the speaker is an intelligent person by his use of high diction and quick wit, not the savage that the landlady assumes he is because of his skin color. All of these discrepancies between what appears to be and what really is create a sense of verbal irony that helps the poem display the ridiculousness of racism.
Once the landlady answers the man decides he must confess, as if he has committed a crime, about his nationality as the persona in the poem is well aware of the wide spread prejudice against people of African descent and feels he must get the fact out of the way. However, unaware of the extent of the landlady's ignorance, he is shocked and annoyed by her cold, inpersonal and demeaning approach to his confession. On hearing her reply, her voice strikes the man as that of a pretentious snob, describing the voice as "Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled/Cigarette-holder pipped". The landlady, concerned by this information placed in front of her, replies, bluntly, "HOW DARK?" Soyinka, choosing to use capital letters to capture the woman's speech, is perhaps trying to convey the pure simplicity of her thought process.
Dumbfounded by the woman's reply, the man is left in silence, and the woman pursues her inquiry...