Revealing Instances of Racial Prejudice Communicated in Two Different Forms

Revealing Instances of Racial Prejudice Communicated in Two Different Forms

            Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” and Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” both illustrate racial prejudice which produces the difficulty of being black in a community that has a majority of white residents, many of whom are not yet ready to accept minorities as equals as the poems are written in 1962 and 1951 respectively.  However, while the two poems basically portray a similar theme, the narrator in “Telephone Conversation” is a pleading, meeker character compared to the more confrontational, frank and confident persona of “Theme for English B”.  Moreover, while “Telephone Conversation” makes use of figurative language such as sarcasm, irony, synecdoche and some imagery to emphasize the underlying racism, “Theme for English B” uses rhythm to proclaim “what is true” for the narrator, and to illustrate the similarities and differences between the student and his professor.

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            Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” begins with an intriguing sentence and proceeds almost prose-like, making way for the dialogue between the landlady and the hopeful would-be resident.  The racial tension is subtle but strong; every new bit of the conversation contributes to the readers’ heightened awareness of what the landlady is really all about.  “The price seemed reasonable, location/ indifferent.  The landlady swore she lived/ off premises” (lines 1-3) is an ironic start to a situation that proves itself later on to be not the hassle free negotiation it first appears to be.  The lines focus on the usual concerns mentioned when a landlady and her prospective tenant discuss terms — without thought of race.  Later descriptions provide depth of both characters: the landlady is portrayed as a lady of “good-breeding” (line 7) but one who is prejudiced and concerned about the answer to “Are you dark? Or very light?” (line 18) by her prospective tenant, while her caller is very willing to please, even to the point of apologizing, as suggested by “self-confession” (line 4) for his color even though it is not a crime to be who you are.

Soyinka uses sarcasm, synecdoche and irony provide the tone the poet wants to convey and the message the poem ultimately wants to project.  The well-educated speech of the African man is ironic; his race is considered barbaric but without his “confession”, the landlady is not able to distinguish him from other prospective white clients.  Through synecdoche, items that represent the landlady emphasize her “pressurized good-breeding” (line 6): from “lipstick coated” (line 8) to red double-tiered omnibus squelching tar” (lines 13-14). Even the African client tries to maintain some semblance of good manners and restraint, but later gives way to sarcasm:  “Friction, caused—/foolishly, madam—by sitting down, has turned/ my bottom raven black” (lines 30-32).

            Hughes’ “Theme for English B” is more direct.  It uses free verse like “Telephone Conversation” but while the former uses dialogue, Hughes’ main character starts by talking to himself and later transitions to talking directly to his white professor. The African American student recognizes the difficulty of following his professor’s directions for writing his English theme. “The instructor said/Go home and write/a page tonight/and let the page come out of you/then it will be true” (lines 1-5).  The student is skeptical that he will be able to produce something that is true for himself and for the professor as well because the two of them are separated by race and age.  He is also faced with another difficulty, by being “the only colored student in [his] class” (line 10).  He proceeds to describe seemingly mundane aspects of his life “the steps from the hill lead down into Harlem…where I take the elevator up to my room, sit down, and write this page” (lines 11-15), but it is his way of inviting his professor to walk in his shoes and see his life through his own eyes.  Further, the young man professes that his likes are no different than a white man’s:  “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.  I like to work, read, learn, and understand life…Bessie, bop, or Bach” (lines 21-24).  The preceding lines, however, have a rhythm that is purely Harlem:  “I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:

hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page. (I hear New York too.) Me—who?” (lines 18-20).  This singsong rhythm seems to make its way back in the lines “But we are, that’s true/as I learn from you/I guess you learn from me/although you’re older and white/and somewhat more free” (lines 36-40).  The ending is slower however, as he reiterates the difference between him and his professor and even becomes a little wistful as he recognizes that the older white man has more freedom.
Racism is not portrayed as violent in either poem, but its effects are no less powerful and no less evident.  The white landlady wants to remain civilized against what she perceives as an uncouth African, and the African in turn apologizes for his own color.  They are only connected by their voices but the relationship is all too clear.  The African American student, meanwhile, does not apologize for who he is but instead celebrates his identity.  He does still believe that he will have a difficulty in terms of making his older, white professor understand what is true for him, a twenty two year old black student.  The side of the professor is only shown by the first few lines which served as instructions, but those lines already show an almost imperious belief by the professor that his orders will produce something that he expects in everyone else; he does not care about his only black student who may have a different interpretation of the theme.

Works Cited:

Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” 27 February 2008


Soyinka, Wole. “Telephone Conversation.” 27 February 2008 <http://www.k-



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