Sunday, 19 May 2013
Soyinka's Poem On Racism
Happy Birthday Prof. Wole Soyinka: In celebration of your wit and literary mischief, I am hereby reproducing, what I personally regard as your best poem, "Telephone conversation".
I read this poem in school, but it was only when I arrived the UK that its naked facts and mischievous truth on racism hit me, according to you, on my "peroxide blond" palms.
Peel off the skin of a black man and a white man, dissect them both, leave them open for examination, both organs and entrails are similar, the same blood is red, the white man's blood is not fairer than the black man's blood; not even the best (Oxon) biologist can tell the difference.
I remember some years ago (1996), while house hunting in London, I was faced with the same dramatic dilemma as Kongi. It went something like this.
White English landIady's were scared of my deep Akwa Ibom accent (Gringory style). After several unsuccessful attempts, I had to hand the phone over to my fiancee (now my wife), she had cultivated this rich urbane British accent. The trick worked, I got myself a bed sit, but the land lady insisted on seeing the "English lady" for an interview. We prayed. I went on my own to a predominantly white area, High Barnet , in North London. When I appeared at my land lady's front door, the husband took one look at me and grunted under his breath, "O dear, it's a black African man!". Well, since I was not holding a spear or riding on the back of an elephant , he politely ushered me in. Still intrigued at my trick he asked me," the lady that spoke to my wife , is she black or white ?". I thought for a minute, then I replied ( it was something like this) , " she is a very black Edo woman, with a very white English voice",
Ladies and Gentlemen for your reading pleasure, " Telephone Conversation". Happy Birthday once again, Prof.
by Wole Soyinka
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 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?"