The theme for today’s 21 Days/21 Poems is prejudice.
The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“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.
“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
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis–
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean–like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”–and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
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
Are a peroxide blond. 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
See for yourself?”
Prejudice is a ridiculous idea. Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation illustrates this perfectly. The poem is packed with puns, irony and sarcasm. It’s hard not to imagine that this conversation (or something like it) actually took place. Soyinka tries to make light of the situation. But it’s not really funny, is it? How can one apologize for one’s race? The speaker, a West African man, uses words like “confession” and “caught” yet he’s done nothing wrong, he just needs a place to live. Such a basic need. But even in his attempt to secure his living situation, he has to still explain and clarify who and what he is. The landlady is so polite but so judgmental and prejudiced against black folks. The speaker’s anger is evident in the repeated use of the word red and in the poem’s pauses. “West African sepia” is priceless. In the end, he offers his arse for viewing. Classic Soyinka.