Her man done upt and lef her with nuttin’ but memories of another time and quarrels with the phone lady; clearly sister ‘s got tone. "You say I O.Ked / LONG DISTANCE?" Alberta K. Johnson asks the operator in a tone that says "[don’t go there girlfrien’] That was then!" What the operator does not understand, nor cares to understand is that Alberta lives in a complex world fraught with tensions of strength and vulnerability in which she carries the heavy burden of her men: "I’m mad and disgusted/ With that Negro now. / I don’t pay no REVERSED/ CHARGES nohow." And the conversation continues in this manner, with Alberta voicing her objections to once again being taken advantage of by her distant lover. Hughes, however, makes certain, primarily through Alberta’s haughtiness, that the narrative she communicates in "Madam and the Phone Bill" avoids a tale of female victimization in which she renders herself helpless to her lover’s demands or, for that matter, to the demands of an intrusive bureaucracy.
The controlling metaphor of phone and phone bill, established as a discussion between the operator and Alberta K. Johnson, suggests that the poem is localized within the contention between the operator and the speaker. But what Hughes makes less obvious is the internal conflict Alberta experiences over the rejection and abuse that her absent boyfriend continues to deliver and inflict. One might even go so far as to say that Alberta K. Johnson is the sad recipient of a society that attempts to emasculate black men by reducing them to economic inferiority. By this I mean that Roscoe’s inability to take responsibility for something as basic as his own phone call suggests a sad impotence of the underclass black male, and naturally, by association, also suggests the distress and debilitating loneliness of the black woman who must become, by virtue of partnership, the custodian of black culture. Underlying through the wit and bite of Hughes’ Alberta is the somber realization of a historical tradition that denied generations of Americans their right to be human. To the extent that Roscoe cannot pay his phone bill, that he surrenders responsibility to his woman, that he does not understand the consequences of his weakness, he becomes less of a man while consequently placing Alberta in the position of assuming both male and female roles by becoming his defender and appropriating the status of warrior.
It is no secret that black women in the black culture have traditionally and primarily carried the economic and emotional burden of the family and community. They have been the lovers, the mothers, the sisters, the providers and the teachers who struggle to combat the persistent violations imposed on them by their men who either by choice or circumstance seem unable to express their prowess through a means other than their sexuality. Despite Roscoe’s economic indigence, he continues to maintain romantic relationships beyond his commitment to Alberta: "[W]hat can/ Them other girls do/ That Alberta K. Johnson/ Can’t do—and more?" she asks. Her voice comes with the resignation of her rejection, and communicates a tormented edginess that she displaces to the annoying operator who insists on payment despite Alberta’s emotional anguish. But Alberta, in spite of her vulnerability, remains strong while she engages in a simultaneous battle for power and dignity with the operator: "You say, I will pay it--/ Else you’ll take out my phone?/ You better let / My phone alone" she says in stinging retort to her listener’s discourteousness. Demanding her right to be heard, her right to be understood and her right to love, Alberta asks the operator, following a momentary weakness in which her voice softens for Roscoe, "What’s that Central? You say you don’t care/ Noting about my/ Private Affair?" Alberta’s loneliness has reduced her to disclosing her private business to an indifferent ear, who instead of offering sympathy, threatens her with silence, and worse yet, with permanent, emotional isolation. Unfortunately "Central" does not understand that Alberta is not a paradigmatic American who adheres to prescribed roles. She is instead, through a contrived process of enablement, a manipulated player in the systematic crippling of black men. Living on the periphery of dominant culture within a private sphere of gender reversals, Alberta’s eventual rejection of Roscoe, implied thorough her refusal to pay for his call, bravely signifies her dignity and her decided oppositionality to any further contribution she might make towards the reduction of her man.
In one respect, we can read Hughes’ poem as the struggles of a black female in a world without men. Once the reader is able to get beyond the entertainment of Alberta’s tone, then Hughes reveals a world much more serious and grave than a "[m]adam and [her] [p]hone [b]ill." In a subtle, subversive sense of the word, Alberta is very much a "madam." Her constant disappointment and aching desire to be loved turns her, respectfully so, into a kept woman who erratically receives the benefits of her man’s sexual prowess in exchange for her soul. The merit of this relationship, however, seems to hold no long-term value, and furthermore, provides little immediate satisfaction which leads Alberta to the final conclusion that she "sure ain’t gonna pay" no more, nohow! Hughes’ poem therefore seems to question the workability of adult relationships in the black world where women pay with their souls for loving their men while it simultaneously highlights the legacy of colonialism that persists in disenfranchising black men and separating them from their women. In the end, Alberta’s dramatic dialogue, worded with the sting of solitary female blackness, amounts to what one might call a deliberate exposure of "a check truly gone bad."
Copyright © 2001 by Suzanne Lynch