Second-Class Citizen

by Buchi Emecheta

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Second-Class Citizen is a semiautobiographical novel by Buchi Emecheta that was first published in 1974. Using a third-person limited point of view, the narrator describes the early life of Adah Ofili, later Adah Obi, a Nigerian woman of Ibo descent. At the novel’s beginning, Adah is a young girl who dreams of someday going to England; by its end, she is a young woman seeking to publish her first novel. This manuscript, called The Bride Price, shares a title with one of Emecheta’s own novels. Like Adah, Emecheta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and was initially denied an education as a young girl. The author also married as a teenager and joined her husband in London with two young children, as Adah does in the novel.

Perhaps because the novel is informed by Emecheta’s real-life experiences, Second-Class Citizen paints a realistic—and sometimes sobering—portrait of life for immigrants in London in the 1960s. In fact, it is this harsh reality that provides the title for the novel. When Adah moves to London in chapter 3 and her husband, Francis, brings her to the stark room where the family is supposed to live, Francis feels he must give his wife a bit of perspective. As Adah repeatedly asks him questions, stunned that someone who held her status in Nigeria could be treated so poorly in England, he becomes frustrated and snaps,

You must know my dear young lady, that in Lagos you may be a million publicity officers for the Americans; you may be earning a million pounds a day; you may have hundreds of servants; you may be living like an elite, but the day you land in England, you are a second-class citizen. So you can’t discriminate against your own people, because we are all second-class.

Adah grows to learn that her experiences will be limited by her race and gender: where she can live, what she can earn, and what she can expect of her life have all shifted in moving to a country that is largely white and dominated by patriarchal mores. When Francis and Adah look for a second apartment, they learn that “no coloureds” are allowed by many of the landlords renting property. As Francis tells Adah when she arrives in London,

Everybody is coming to London, the West Indians, the Pakistanis and even the Indians, so that African students are usually grouped together with them. We are all blacks, all coloureds, and the only houses we can get are horrors like these.

Any immigrants who are not white are treated as inferior, according to both Francis’s account and much of what readers witness in the novel. The difficulty the family has in finding accommodations, eventually settling in a room in a dilapidated house owned by a Nigerian man, is proof of this, as is Emecheta’s general commentary about Nigerian immigrants to London.

The narrator opens chapter 7 with a discussion of “another group of Nigerian men who had come to England . . . in the late forties.” These men hoped to obtain a good education and return to Nigeria “to rule their country.” Between their education and their experience living abroad in the colonizer’s country, they dreamed of gaining clout and respectability. Emecheta notes that “most of the men who sought the kingdom of eligibles did not make it.” Instead, they were “trodden upon.” Despite the high hopes and great ambitions these men brought to London, the majority of them were unable to succeed. Pa Noble is a case in point. He failed his law exams and went to work a menial job at a station of the London Underground. He ended up flattering white men, performing for them, and injuring himself trying to prove his worth.

Throughout the novel, Adah finds out that she is a “second-class citizen” in terms of her gender as well. As a girl in Nigeria, she faces discrimination when she is denied an education and must actively fight to attend school. She is expected to marry young, and her own education is not a priority, unlike that of her brother. After she marries Francis, she is not permitted to travel to London with him at first; the prevailing idea is that it is the man who should seek educational and professional opportunities overseas, despite the fact that Adah has earned a respectable job and supports the family financially while Francis studies.

Once she arrives in London, Adah is subject to her husband’s physical and verbal abuse. She is treated as his property: he demands sex from her when he wants it, even if she does not want to have another child yet, and will not allow her to use contraception. Adah eventually seeks out birth control on her own, only to learn about systemic sexism in the form of a paper that must be signed by her husband before she can be prescribed the Pill. Once Francis finds out that she tried to prevent another pregnancy, he shames her in front of their neighbors, writes to his parents to expose what he perceives as her dishonesty and manipulation, berates her, and beats her.

Adah eventually has four children with Francis and is pregnant with a fifth by the time the novel closes. After he burns her novel manuscript, Adah has had enough and finds an apartment for her and the children. She takes Francis to court, but he lies about being the children’s father, so Adah claims the children for herself. Adah’s story has feminist overtones in the sense that she fights for education, maintains a career to support her family, speaks out against her husband’s abuse, and eventually resolves to make her own way without Francis.

Finally, Emecheta’s novel exposes some of the problems for immigrants in London, namely the bigotry of the white population. It is clear that Nigeria’s colonial past has contributed to Adah’s ingrained sense of white English superiority. She anticipates that a landlord will discriminate against her when she calls to inquire about a room, so she disguises her voice. She learns, however, that white people are just as flawed as anyone else through her interactions with Trudy and, later, Sue Noble. After Adah finds Trudy in a compromising situation with a man when Trudy is supposed to be watching both Adah’s and her own children, Adah complains to an officer. Trudy unabashedly lies, shocking Adah and leading to this conclusion:

But Adah could not stop thinking about her discovery that the whites were just as fallible as everyone else. There were bad whites and good whites, just as there were bad blacks and good blacks! Why, then did they claim to be superior?

This epiphany makes Adah increasingly aware of the systemic racism of colonialism. She also later learns from her Canadian friend Bill at the library about a wide range of Black authors, beyond the two Nigerian writers she has read:

It was through Bill that Adah knew of James Baldwin. She came to believe, though reading Baldwin, that black was beautiful. She asked Bill about it and he said, did she not know that black was beautiful.

Again, Adah’s realization here points to the way racism becomes internalized by its victims. Her exposure to imperfect white characters, the blatant racism in London, and proud Black writers like Baldwin combine to motivate her writing. She gains confidence and is able to withstand even Francis’s criticism: “You keep forgetting that you are a woman and that you are black.” Adah is instead encouraged by the feedback of her friends at the library, and she is determined to soldier on despite Francis’s abuse. Emecheta’s novel not only exposes the bad in its honest depiction of racism and sexism in both Nigeria and London: the author also takes care to show the good, in the form of Adah’s fierce struggles and endless tenacity in working to overcome those obstacles.

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