Telephone Conversation 
Wole Soyinka 

            The price seemed reasonable, location 
            Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived 
            Off premises. Nothing remained 
            But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned, 
5         “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.” 
            Silence. Silenced transmission of 
            Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came, 
            Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled 
            Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully. 

10         “HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT 
            OR VERY DARK?” Button B. Button A. Stench 
            Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak. 
            Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered 
            Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed 
15         By ill-mannered silence, surrender 
            Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification. 
            Considerate she was, varying the emphasis— 

            “ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came. 
            “You mean—like plain or milk chocolate?” 
20         Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light 
            Impersonality. Rapidly, wavelength adjusted, 
            I chose. “West African sepia”—and as an afterthought, 
            “Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic 
            Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent 
25         Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding, 
            “DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.” 

            “THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether. 
            Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see 
            The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet 
30         Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused— 
            Foolishly, madam—by sitting down, has turned 
            My bottom raven black—One moment madam!”—sensing 
            Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap 
            About my ears—“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather 
35         See for yourself?”

 

Making Meanings 
Telephone Conversation 

First Thoughts 

1. This poem dramatizes a battle. Who do you think finally wins, and why? 

Shaping Interpretations 

2. Paraphrase what happens in this poem, and then state what you feel is the poem’s theme

3. What does their dialogue reveal about these two characters

4. This poem is full of colors—and not just of skin. What colors do you see in the poem? What does Soyinka want to communicate through these images of color? 

5. What irony do you find in lines 23–26? What irony do you find in the description of the woman as well-bred? 

6. What do you think of the speaker’s final question? 

Connecting with the Text
 

7. Since the speaker was prepared for prejudice, why do you think the woman’s question disturbs him so much? 

8. If you faced this kind of discrimination, how would you react to it? 

Challenging the Text 

9. Do you think Soyinka’s poem is an effective way of making others aware of prejudice. Is it more, or less, effective than other ways? How so? Explain.

----

Back to the Table of Contents