What Is "Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka?

“Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka demonstrates the injustice of a man being judged on the basis of his skin color. However, in this poem, the problem of racism is not expressed in an explicitly angry tone. Instead, Soyinka outlines the conversation between the man and the landlady with humorous undertones to better emphasize the unfairness of her treatment.

The poem centers on the conversation between an African man calling a British landlady about a space for rent. The man correctly assesses that the woman will have reservations about renting to him because of his skin color but what surprises him is her question, “HOW DARK?” He tries to answer “West African sepia” and “brunette,” but goes on to explain that he is not an easy-to-categorize color. The poem ends with his question, “Wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?” This implicitly invites her to evaluate him as a whole person, instead of by his color, which does not define his identity.

Soyinka writes the poem in free verse (no meter or rhyme) and includes dialogue, which gives the poem its playful feel. Also, Soyinka includes creative and offbeat elements to the speaker’s thoughts and speech; for example, the speaker describes his bottom as “raven black,” a humorous and even inappropriate detail. All this serves to strengthen the speaker’s concealed frustration; he handles the situation as gracefully and humorously as he can, which makes his situation appear to the reader as all the more undeserved and unjust.