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The context of this poem is of a black man from Africa trying to find accommodation, it is based on his experiences as a student in the 1960’s. The poem is written from the perspective as a phone discussion between him and a landlady.The main problem in this poem is that there is a huge amount of racism show by the landlady to the African – ‘How dark? Are you light or very dark?’ This shows immediately that the landlady has something against coloured people and can’t have a conversation without knowing the skin colour of the man. It also seems that the landlady would prefer the man not be coloured than to rather receive money for the accommodation.

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The impression we get from the landlady tells us that she is a very racist and ignorant woman. She first shows this after the man mentions he’s an Africa, which she doesn’t reply to – ‘Silence, silenced transmission of pressurised good breeding.’ The silence shows us her simple summary of her response of having to think twice about accommodating the black man. She shows that she has a sense of racism in her – ‘Considerate she was, varying the emphasis – Are you dark? Or very light?’ This tells us that the landlady is trying to imagine all the colours he could be and shows she judges people totally on colour. We also see that she is wealthy and cares about her image a lot – ‘Lipstick coated, long gold – rolled cigarette holder piped.’ From the view of the man he would think she is also a snob due to the way she is speaking to him and her questions.

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When the conversation starts it begins normally but is changed completely when the man says he is African – ‘Self confession – I am African.’ This suggests that the mans skin colour is a sin which he is guilty of. He also feels that he needs to defend himself even before the woman has started to ask any questions. Then after the landlady asked him how dark he was he didn’t know how to respond to her – ‘Button A, Button B,’ this shows us that the man is shocked and confused to answer the question just asked. After the man realises that the landlady has a sense of racism in her, he begins to become angry and compares it to the environment he is in – ‘Red booth, red pillar box, red double tiered.’ The red that he is describing represents his feelings which means he is angry and the environment seems repulsive to him.

When the man says – ‘Like plain or milk chocolate’ he is talking about his skin colour and at the same time making a clever joke out of it. He is also mocking the landlady and showing her that he is not going to put up with the racist questions anymore. This shows that he is beginning to twist the conversation and is now the person who is asking the questions. He shows this when he says his colour is ‘West African Sepia’ and then asking her if she knew his skin colour. But as ‘West African Sepia’ isn’t a colour it tells us that the man is using his knowledge to make a fool of her. This makes him feel better due to the fact that he is now criticising her. Also, he feels he wants to make her feel the same way he felt when he had to answer the racist questions.

The attitude of the man changes at the end of the poem from being a polite and respectful to an angry and rude man. But he changes his attitude because of the landlady’s judgement of him and decided to show his angry and rage to show that he is not a weak person. The man is now making fun of her and is mocking her at more length when he speaks about his colour – ‘Don’t you know what it is? That’s dark, isn’t it?’ He then starts to be rude by offering to show his bottom under the pretence of suggesting she meets him before judging – ‘My bottom raven black, wouldn’t you rather see for yourself.’ He does this to make her feel uncomfortable as he was before and tried to put her in a complicated position.

The control of power in the beginning of this poem was in the hands of the landlady as she owns the house and is offering the accommodation to the man. As the poem continues her power begins to decrease as the man reverses the situation as he starts to mock her. By the end of the poem the man has gained all the power from the landlady and is so powerful the landlady talks but only when she is asked a question. I think the poet wrote this to show that people who seem to be weak like the African man could be clever enough to gain power. Also, people who are foreign to a country still believe they have rights to fight back to unpleasant comments.

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Kylie Garcia

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