How do the writers Benjamin Zephaniah and Wole Soyinka challenge racism in their poems ‘Neighbours’ and ‘ Telephone Conversation’?
In times of great stress or trauma, poetry has always proved as a perfect medium for people to voice their views and opinions, and to get them heard. Two prime examples of this are Benjamin Zephaniah and Wole Soyinka’s respective ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Telephone Conversation’. Both poems address the subject of racism and attempt to tackle racial stereotypes and prejudices. They do so in a variety of ways, and differ greatly in their style of writing, whilst many devices run throughout them both. The poets’ choices within their poems affect the reader greatly and with varying effect. Whilst both poems attempt to tackle racism, they do so in different ways, both targeting different aspects. ‘Telephone Conversation’ subtly attempts to convey the irrationality of racism, using irony as a device to convey the idea with subtlety and almost to the point of humour. The common racial stereotype people had of black people in 1962- the time of writing- is entirely repudiated as the audience read the poem and begin to gain some insight into the personality of the narrator; he was erudite, polite and educated: the complete antithesis of the widespread preconceptions people had at the time. Words like "pipped," "rancid," and "spectroscopic" are not words that a savage brute would have in his vocabulary. His intelligence is further proven through his use of sarcasm and wit in response to the lady’s questions. Soyinka ridicules the social and cultural beliefs that accompanied racism in the 60s. The fact that a black, supposedly savage man had the mental capacity to outwit a white, well bred woman of high social stature- “Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came/ Lipstick coated, long gold rolled Cigarette-holder pipped.” -, without her even realising he is doing so, and do so with grace and eloquence, brings to light the absurdity that a person can be based on the colour of their skin. The landlady speaks impolitely, almost unintelligibly, enhancing the narrator’s educated background, creating a strong contrast between the two, showing that the white, well-bred woman is more similar to the stereotypical character of a black person, than the narrator- a black man, himself- is. This again highlights the stupidity of racism in contemporary settings through the use of irony, as the audience are well aware that the narrator is of greater mental capacity than the ladlady, showing that the preconceived ideas many people possess have no grounds in fact and are based purely in speculation and hearsay. The devices used in “Neighbours” are cardinal to the development of the poem, with the main point of interest being the devices themselves. The 1st and 2nd stanza, and the 5th and 6th correspond directly. In the first pair of stanzas the poet outlines a number of negative stereotypes people have of black people. It is clear from the first line that the poem is going to outline stereotypes in particular – “I am the type you are supposed to fear”. The word “Supposed” indicates to the reader that prejudices are to be the focal point of the poem. Stereotypes in themselves are but ideas that one feels they are “supposed” to believe. Zephaniah also makes clear the fact that the ensuing stanzas are to expand upon negative stereotype, through the use of the word “fear”. The lack of punctuation at the end of the line leads one to believe that the point is to be expanded upon, which indeed it is. The 5th stanza begins in an almost identical manner : “I am the type you are supposed to love”. This creates the same effect of anticipation, but of positive stereotypes, as opposed to negative ones.The succeeding lines go on to introduce a number of negative statements about black people. It is interesting to note that they are stated in the 1st person, and as fact. The poet leaves no room for doubt when stating the...
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