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.
The first sentence of the poem includes a pun that introduces the theme of the following poem and also informs us that things are not going to be as straightforward as they appear. "The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent" (lines 1-2). If we read over these lines quickly, we would assume that the speaker meant "Being neither good nor bad" by the use of the word indifferent (American Heritage 706). But, indifferent is also defined as "Characterized by a lack of partiality; unbiased" (706). This second definition gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. Instead of the apartment's location being neither good or bad, we read that the apartment's location is unbiased and impartial. However, we quickly learn in the following lines of the poem that the location of the apartment is the exact opposite of unbiased and impartial. The speaker is rudely denied the ability to rent the property because of bias towards his skin color. This opening pun quickly grabs our attention and suggests that we as readers be on the lookout for more subtle uses of language that will alter the meaning of the poem.
After this introduction, the speaker begins his "self-confession" about his skin color (line 4). It is ironic that this is called a self-confession since the speaker has nothing that he should have to confess since he has done nothing wrong. He warns the landlady that he is African, instead of just informing her. "Caught I was, foully" he says after listening to the silence the landlady had responded with (line 9). Again, the word caught connotes that some wrong had been done, that the speaker was a criminal caught committing his crime. By making the speaker actually seem sorry for his skin color, Soyinka shows how ridiculous it really is for someone to apologize for his race. To modern Western thinkers, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has committed no wrongdoing.
The landlady, on the other hand, is described with nothing but positive terms. The speaker mentions her "good-breeding," "lipstick coated" voice, "long gold-rolled/Cigarette holder," all possessions that should make her a respectable lady (lines 7-9). These words describing her wealth are neutral in regard to her personal character, but allow that she could be a good person. Her goodness is seemingly confirmed later on when the speaker says that she was "considerate" in rephrasing her question (line 17). Her response to the caller's question included only "light / Impersonality" (lines 20-21). Although she was described as being a wealthy woman, she was seemingly considerate and only slightly impersonal. The speaker seems almost grateful for her demeanor. Of course, these kind descriptions of the woman are teeming with verbal irony. We know that she is being very shallowly judgmental even while she is seeming to be so pleasant.
After recording the all-important question, "How dark?," the poem pauses for a moment and describes the surroundings to give a sense of reality that shows that the ridiculous question had really been asked (line 10). The speaker describes the buttons in the phone booth, the foul smell that seems to always coexist with public spaces, and a bus driving by outside. His description gives us an image of where the speaker is located: a public phone booth, probably somewhere in the United Kingdom. The "Red booth," "Red pillar-box," and "Red double-tiered / Omnibus" are all things that one might find in Leeds, the British city in which Soyinka had been studying prior to writing this poem (lines 13-14; "Nobel"1). In addition to the literal images that this description creates, a sense of the anger running through the speaker's mind is portrayed by the repeated use of the word red. This anaphora is the closest that that the speaker ever comes to openly showing anger in the poem. Although it is hidden with seemingly polite language, a glimpse of the speaker's anger appears in this quick pause in the conversation.
In the end, the landlady repeats her question and the speaker is forced to reveal how dark he is. "West African sepia," he says, citing his passport (line 23). She claims not to know what that means. She wants a quantifiable expression of his darkness. His response, feigning simplicity is that his face is "brunette," his hands and feet "peroxide blonde" and his bottom "raven black" (lines 28, 30, 32). He knows that she just wants a measure of his overall skin-color so that she can categorize him, but he refuses to give it to her. Instead he details the different colors of different parts of his body. As it was meant to, this greatly annoys the landlady and she hangs up on him. In closing, he asks the then empty telephone line, "wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?" (lines 34-35). The speaker, still playing his ignorance of what the lady was truly asking, sounds as though he is asking whether the landlady would like to meet him in person to judge his skin color for herself. The irony in this question, though, lies in the fact that we know the speaker is actually referring to his black bottom when he asks the woman if she wants to see it for herself. Still feigning politeness, the speaker offers to show his backside to the racist landlady.
Throughout the poem, yet another form of irony is created by the speaker's use of high diction, which shows his education. Although the landlady refuses to rent an apartment to him because of his African heritage and the supposed savagery that accompanies it, the speaker is clearly a well educated individual. Words like "pipped," "rancid," and "spectroscopic" are not words that a savage brute would have in his vocabulary (lines 9, 12, 23). The speaker's intelligence is further shown through his use of sarcasm and wit in response to the landlady's questions. Although he pretends politeness the entire time, he includes subtle meanings in his speech. The fact that a black man could outwit and make a white woman seem foolish shows the irony in judging people based on their skin color.
Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" is packed with subtleties. The puns, irony, and sarcasm employed help him to show the ridiculousness of racism. The conversation we observe is comical, as is the entire notion that a man can be judged based on the color of his skin.
American Heritage College Dictionary, The. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
"Nobel e-Museum: Wole Soyinka - Biography." 2004. The Nobel Foundation. 14 Mar. 2004.
Soyinka, Wole. "Telephone Conversation." Reading and Writing from Literature. Ed. John E. Schwiebert. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 750.