The speaker of the poem, a dark West African man searching for a new apartment, tells the story of a telephone call he made to a potential landlady. Instead of discussing price, location, amenities, and other information significant to the apartment, they discussed the speaker's skin color.
The landlady is described as a polite, well-bred woman, even though she is shown to be shallowly racist. The speaker is described as being genuinely apologetic for his skin color, even though he has no reason to be sorry for something which he was born with and has no control over.
In this short poem, we can see that the speaker is an intelligent person by his use of high diction and quick wit, not the savage that the landlady assumes he is because of his skin color. All of these discrepancies between what appears to be and what really is create a sense of verbal irony that helps the poem display the ridiculousness of racism.
"The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent"
The first sentence of the poem includes a pun that introduces the theme of the following poem and also informs us that things are not going to be as straightforward as they appear. "The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent"
If we read over these lines quickly, we would assume that the speaker meant "Being neither good nor bad" by the use of the word indifferent . But, indifferent is also defined as "Characterized by a lack of partiality; unbiased." This other definition gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. Instead of the apartment's location being neither good or bad, we read that the apartment's location is unbiased and impartial.
However, we quickly learn in the following lines of the poem that the location of the apartment is the exact opposite of unbiased and impartial.
The speaker is rudely denied the ability to rent the property because of bias towards his skin color. This opening pun quickly grabs our attention and suggests that we as readers be on the lookout for more subtle uses of language that will alter the meaning of the poem.
"Caught I was, foully"
After this introduction, the speaker begins his "self-confession" about his skin color (line 4). It is ironic that this is called a self-confession since the speaker has nothing that he should have to confess since he has done nothing wrong. He warns the landlady that he is African, instead of just informing her. "Caught I was, foully" he says after listening to the silence the landlady had responded with.
I hate a wasted journey—I am African
Again, the word caught connotes that some wrong had been done, that the speaker was a criminal caught committing his crime. By making the speaker actually seem sorry for his skin color, Soyinka shows how ridiculous it really is for someone to apologize for his race. To modern Western thinkers, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has committed no wrongdoing.
ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?
Her goodness is seemingly confirmed later on when the speaker says that she was "considerate" in rephrasing her question (line 17). Her response to the caller's question included only "light / Impersonality" (lines 20-21). Although she was described as being a wealthy woman, she was seemingly considerate and only slightly impersonal. The speaker seems almost grateful for her demeanor. Of course, these kind descriptions of the woman are teeming with verbal irony. We know that she is being very shallowly judgmental even while she seems to be so pleasant.
The landlady, on the other hand, is described with nothing but positive terms. The speaker mentions her "good-breeding," "lipstick coated" voice, "long gold-rolled/Cigarette holder," all possessions that should make her a respectable lady (lines 7-9). These words describing her wealth are neutral in regard to her personal character, but allow that she could be a good person. "How dark?,"
After recording the all-important question, "How...
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