Paradoxically apologetic and bitingly sarcastic, Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation is a 35-line poem dealing with bigotry and the absurdity of racist hierarchies. Written in free verse, the poem portrays an African’s attempt to rent an apartment in London. Describing a conversation with a prospective landlady conducted from a public phone, the poem’s speaker recounts the experience of negotiating suitable lodgings. “The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived / Off premises.” Before making an appointment to view the flat, the apartment seeker nevertheless feels compelled to reveal his ethnicity: “Nothing remained / But self-confession. ‘Madam,’ I warned / I hate a wasted journey—I am African.’ ” The word confession wryly implies culpability, and the speaker’s suggestion of self-incrimination is reinforced by the landlady’s stony silence and underlined by the narrator’s rueful “Caught I was, foully.” The narrator is trapped indeed, “Shamed / By ill-mannered silence” broken only by sudden explosions of authoritative anxiety: “HOW DARK?” and again, “ARE YOU LIGHT / OR VERY DARK?” The capital letters suggest not so much the volume of the woman’s voice as the insult of her questions.
For a few lines the speaker disconnects from the conversation and focuses on his surroundings, perhaps to detach himself from the woman’s racism. In so doing, however, he perceives his backdrop and situates the story in London, describing the “Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered / Omnibus squelching tar.” He suggests through the repeated use of red both an allusion to the color of the British Empire on its maps and his own indignation at being so interrogated. Moreover, the red bus seems to be an uncanny (if psychologically significant) metaphor for England itself, “squelching” the “tar”-hued subjects of its former colonies.
As a retort, to answer the woman’s questions, the narrator states that he is “West African sepia,” dryly referring to the British colonial system’s practice of officially classifying subjects according to skin tone. The next passage marks a distinct shift in tone. Astounded by the indignity to which he is being subjected, the narrator embarks on a monologue at once witty and sarcastic. Describing his various bodily parts, he claims to be “DARK” (“brunette”) only on his face and explains that “the rest” (palms and soles) are light, “peroxide blond,” an oblique reference to how he pictures the woman at the other end of the line and a sassy and contemptuous way of describing the lighter skin on those parts of his own body. In a final protest the speaker mentions his “bottom,” saying that friction, caused “Foolishly, Madam—by sitting down, has turned” it “raven black.” He tries to keep the woman from hanging up by challenging her, “Madam . . . wouldn’t you rather / See for yourself?” Several levels of meaning enter into play in these final lines of Soyinka’s picture of the banality of evil. While some of him may be viewed as “peroxide blond,” colored by contact with the racist British colonial system, he is obviously black, if not “raven black,” and an African to the bottom of his heart, identity, and soul. The phrase “Foolishly . . . sitting down” refers to a former taboo in West Africa against allowing the “natives” to sit in the presence of European colonials. The phrase suggests—with ironic subtlety— that the speaker frequently has dared, by sitting, to proclaim his black identity and his fundamental rights. In cheekily asking, “wouldn’t you rather / See [my bottom] for yourself?” the speaker tempts the woman to subject herself to another international sign of insolence.