Reading the title of the book, ‘Second Class Citizen’ the expectation is that the book will be about degradation, oppression, discrimination, etc. and will tell the harrowing tale of a person who may or may not have survived this subjugation. Add to this the knowledge that this book was written by Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian novelist, and this expectation is just reinforced, perhaps even strengthened with the added associations of slavery, prejudice and horrific living conditions.
Keeping this rather insolent assumption in mind, the first chapter of the book acts like a glass of cold water to the face. Right at the onset we are introduced to Adah, a headstrong, courageous, highly likeable girl who does exactly as she pleases, regardless of what the people around her have to say.
Our first experience with Adah sees her walking for as long as it takes and making do with the supplies that she can gather, to go to school when she has not been sent or allowed to. And, with this action, our protagonist firmly establishes herself to be everything but the assumptions mentioned earlier. Here, we have, not a person who suffers due to prejudice or oppression, but rather, a person who walks her own path, regardless of societal pressures.
It is with this action that it is firmly established that Adah will certainly attain her dream of going to the United Kingdom. Speaking of her dream, a dream that she describes as a ‘presence’ in itself, over the course of this book, it appears as though it is this very dream that sets Adah apart from her community. It is this dream that gives her the strength to fight for her right to have a dream.
What is interesting, here, is that, while Adah certainly is a strong, independent woman, fearless and ambitious with dreams of her own, it is apparent that she retains specific beliefs that are quite contradictory to these traits. For instance, as the story progresses, it is seen that Adah works at home, works and supports her family financially, cares for her children, etc. all while her husband lives off her earnings. Considering the characteristics that have been attributed to her, it is surprising that she not only willing performs these roles, but appears to believe that she necessarily has to perform them all, by virtue of being a woman.
Throughout the book, Adah appears to believe that she must behave in the way that is expected of her. It is sad that this belief is rooted in reality, with regard to her acceptance in her marital home or community in general. She, like all the other women, is expected to satisfy her husband’s every need and have as many children as possible, especially boys. It is tragic that Adah herself, along with the women in the community, are also trained to believe that they must adhere to these expectations if they are to be accepted by their society, or even by their husbands and families.
For instance, throughout the book, Adah appears to constantly doubt herself, wanting to do what is best for her husband. Towards the end of the book, her reaction to the failed abortion, the birth of her fourth child and her attempts at writing, obtaining validation for her writing skills from Francis, show an immense need to cater to the whims of her husband, keeping him happy and satisfied, despite the costs. In fact, it isn’t until Francis burns her book, smiling as he flings pages into the fire, proceeding to beat her, does she realise that the man certainly does not want what is best for her of for her children.
These incidents indicate a rather terrifying idea. The idea that no matter what we believe or what our dreams are, there are societal expectations that we imbibe, which seep into our consciousness so that we no longer question their validity.
This is a concept that is consistently depicted over throughout this book. For instance, right at the beginning it is evident that the residents of Lagos believe that the lawyer who is to arrive from the United Kingdom is inherently superior to them, for having been exposed to the world outside of their own. Similarly, when Adah finally does move to the United Kingdom, it is seen that while immigrants such as her, do, indeed, face prejudices and discrimination, the community as a whole, appears to believe that they are and always will be second class citizens. The discrimination is seen to have seeped into their very souls so that they truly believe themselves to be inferior and undeserving of a better situation in life. In fact, this phenomenon is so prevalent that Adah is ridiculed, rather than supported, for wanting to create a better life for herself.
In fact, the character of Francis appears to be a personification of this indelible belief that they are and will always be second class citizens, incapable of creating a better life for themselves. This is specifically evident from the moment, when Francis burns Adah’s book, revealing that, having accepted his own inferiority and inability, he is unwilling to see or allow his wife to pursue, and indeed lead, a better life.
This, perhaps, is very closely linked to the major themes of the book which include independence, discrimination, prejudice and feminism amongst others. These themes are tied together by the fact that Adah’s own community, her husband even, as mentioned, act as obstacles to her achieving her dream. This perhaps, is used to depict that often the obstacles that we face are those that we create ourselves.
Keeping this in mind, another significant depiction in the book is an attempt to put Adah’s community of ‘coloureds’ at an equal footing with the ‘whites’. This is something that has been very interestingly depicted in the story, beginning with the opinion that those who are white skinned are inherently superior and infallible, but along the way, revealing that they too are merely human.
It is significant here that there is no attempt to establish either race as superior, inferior, good or bad. Rather, an attempt has been made to draw parallels between the two, establishing that at their core, the two races are far more similar than they are different, in that they are first human.
This is particularly evident when Adah realises that her children are being treated abhorrently by the woman whose care they had been left in. Seeing the woman, Trudy’s, response to being accused of ill treatment, Adah is struck by the revelation that white people too can lie; struck by the revelation that just like there are good and bad black people, there are good and bad white people as well.
This moment, though not explicitly described as significant, perhaps encapsulates within itself one of the core ideas of the book itself – that, we are all the same, in our humanity, despite the many differences in our appearances.
This core idea of the book, once discovered, is evident in all its elements, since this book makes no generalizations. The people, here, are all individuals, with their own wishes, desires and ambitions. Therefore, Francis, for instance, is not representative of an entire community of black men. Rather, this is an individual character with whom we may or may not identify, depending upon our own subjective tendencies.
It is with this idea that this story marks itself as distinct from others. It is this depiction of the idea that makes this story, at its core, a story of hope and determination and grit. Having said this, it is these very adjectives that, again, make this story distinct from most others. Keeping in mind the background of colonialism, slavery, discrimination and prejudice, the words that are associated with this book are not struggle or subjugation. Rather, they are hope, determination, ambition and grit.
At its core, this book appears to be the story of a young woman who is determined to succeed in life, no matter the odds. The story of a young black woman, determined to see her dream come true, no matter the obstacles. And this is particularly important. This is the story, not of a black woman fighting to see her dream come true, but rather, the story of a young woman fighting to see her dream come true. She just happens to be ‘coloured’.
Admittedly, Adah’s experiences are rooted in her culture, which in turn is rooted in her race. However, this is not the black community’s story. This is Adah’s story, and there lies the difference.
This is the story of a young girl, brave beyond measure and determined to see her dream come true.
In the end, this is a story for us all. A story of hope and inspiration. A story that we can all, no matter our culture and race, can identify with.
A story that proves all the assumptions made about it, wrong.
- “Stylistic Devices in Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen” – Grace O. Olutayo, Chidera Ilechukwu (ISJSELL)
- “Marriage As Nightmare: Patterns of Abuse in Second Class Citizen” – Vincent Walsh (Leigh University)
- ‘Second Class Citizen’ – Buchi Emecheta