"Telephone Conversation" is a 1963 poem by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka that satires racism. The poem describes a phone call between a landlady and the speaker, who is black, about renting an apartment. The landlady is pleasant until she learns that the speaker is "African," at which point she demands to know how "light" or "dark" the speaker's skin is. In response, the speaker cleverly mocks the landlady’s ignorance and prejudice, demonstrating that characterizing people by their skin color diminishes their humanity.
The price seemed ...
... journey--I am African."
Silence. Silenced transmission ...
... Cigarette-holder pipped.
Caught I was ...
... B, Button A.
... OR VERY LIGHT?"
Revelation came. ...
... in my passport."
Silence for spectroscopic ...
... WHAT THAT IS."
"Like brunette." ...
... a peroxide blond.
Friction, caused-- ...
... See for yourself?"
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
‘There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’: A Conversation — A conversation between scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the poet from the New York Review of Books.
Wole Soyinka's Biography — A biography of Wole Soyinka from the Nobel Foundation.
Out of Africa: A Conversation with Wole Soyinka — Alessandra Di Maio interviews Wole Soyinka.
Post-Colonial Literature — An introduction to post-colonial literature from Oxford Bibliographies.
Wole Soyinka Reads "Telephone Conversation" — Listen to poet read his poem aloud.
1The price seemed reasonable, location
2Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
3Off premises. Nothing remained
4But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,
5"I hate a wasted journey--I am African."
6Silence. Silenced transmission of
7Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
8Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
9Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
10"HOW DARK?" . . . I had not misheard . . . "ARE YOU LIGHT
11OR VERY DARK?" Button B, Button A. Stench
12Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
13Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
14Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
15By ill-mannered silence, surrender
16Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
17Considerate she was, varying the emphasis--
18"ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?" Revelation came.
19"You mean--like plain or milk chocolate?"
20Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
21Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
22I chose. "West African sepia"--and as afterthought,
23"Down in my passport." Silence for spectroscopic
24Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
25Hard on the mouthpiece. "WHAT'S THAT?" conceding
26"DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS." "Like brunette."
27"THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?" "Not altogether.
28Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
29The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
30Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused--
31Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
32My bottom raven black--One moment, madam!"--sensing
33Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
34About my ears--"Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather
35See for yourself?"