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Preconceived Notions Held by the White and Black Communities in Poems by Wole Soyinka Sharon Olds

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“So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” Chimamanda Adichie (Adichie, 2009). Most people believe [would like to believe] they know everything about anything but few people know that all they know is only a small portion of the bigger picture. People operate on prejudices for most their lives; it is almost like a coping mechanism to avoid looking stupid or ignorant. In some situations, the prejudices are harmless but in others they can become nuclear. An example is a racial divide between the black and white races; inhumane acts [mostly against blacks] have occurred more times than is comfortable to think about. Many individuals from both sides have tried to highlight the problems and bring harmony between both parties; some through activism and others through art. “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka and “On the Subway” by Sharon Olds are poems that highlight the preconceived notions held by the white and black communities against each other.

Soyinka adequately uses imagery to highlight the preconceived notions both races have of each other. “Telephone Conversation” is a poem that handles a far-reaching issue in an almost comical manner. Soyinka uses a lot of imagery so as to highlight his point. “Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came, Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled, Cigarette-holder pipped” (line 7). This excerpt highlights the image most black people [Africans] have of white as sophisticated, well dressed, and good mannered. The notions arguably stem from the colonial period where the Africans were made to believe [through violence and intimidation] that the white man is superior in all ways. The landlady then asks the man how dark he is; he becomes so enraged he sees red everywhere, “Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered …” (line 13). The fact that the landlady makes the level of darkness a pertinent criterion shows the ill notion some people have that black is synonymous with bad. Through imagery Soyinka can highlight and condemn the two preconceived notions, that white is superior and black is bad.

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Olds also uses imagery to show the notions the two races have about each other. “He is wearing red, like the inside of the body, exposed. I am wearing old fur, the whole skin of an animal, taken and used” (line 10). The image conveyed in this line alone can fill an entire book; it suggests the widely accepted notion that the white races are takers and the black race are the people things are taken from. The line also shows the notion the many in the black community have that white people will forcefully take from others, and they will not feel any remorse, “I am wearing old fur.” There is an image propagated by western media that Africa is filled with backward people who cannot help themselves; such depictions form the thinking of most people in western countries. Olds uses imagery in her poem to show the ill notions that blacks and whites have about each other.

Both poets also use irony to showcase the prejudices the two communities have. Irony is evident throughout “Telephone Conversation”. The African thinks “self-confession …” when he is about to tell the landlady he is black. It is very ironical that one has to confess to something they have no control over as if it is a sin. It also highlights the belief that a lot of Africans have that most white people are racist. In “on the Subway” the white woman thinks, “casual cold look of a mugger” (line 9) but later she is thinking, “as if I am taking the food from his mouth” (line 21). The irony is used to highlight two widespread notions that most black men are robbers and that white people are still oppressing black people. Although, it cannot be denied that there are black robbers and white oppressors these ideologies cannot be used to describe the race as a whole.

The two poets have used their art to highlight a plague that is destroying the society of prejudice and racism. Both poems are similar in that they both involve an interaction between a black man and a white woman. However, they are very different in that “Telephone Conversation” is written in the perspective of a black man while “On the Subway” that of a white woman. But above all they both highlight the prejudices held by black and white communities.

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