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Second-Class Citizen

by Buchi Emecheta

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The Protagonist

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The title of Buchi Emecheta’s second novel, Second-Class Citizen, published in 1974, refers to the condition of the protagonist Adah in both her native Nigerian society and in the African immigrant community in Britain. The character is clearly autobiographical, and her journey from Nigeria to London to follow Francis, her student husband, closely resembles Emecheta’s own trajectory as an author.

Adah is a second-class citizen in Nigeria where her parents initially refuse her a suitable education and arrange her marriage. She is equally second-class in England both because she is a Black African woman and because the Nigerian immigrant community reproduces the patriarchal values of the mother country. Yet, in spite of her second-class status, Adah does not give up her ambition to pursue an education in England. Her quest for knowledge is part of the struggle for self-achievement and freedom from social constraints. Ultimately, it is precisely education that allows Adah to improve her condition.

The central character of Second-Class Citizen is representative of many women created by Emecheta. Through education, they are able to challenge the masculinist assumption that they should be defined as mere domestic properties whose value resides in their ability to bear children and in their willingness to remain confined at home. Like other characters in Ememcheta’s fiction, Adah is also torn between two places, suffering from a sense of displacement because she belongs in neither.

In spite of her "second-class" condition, Adah is characterized throughout the novel by her sense of initiative and determination. The first part of the novel, set in Nigeria in the 1940s and 1950s, recounts Adah’s childhood marked by the death of her father and her frustrated aspirations for an independent existence. Contrary to her hopes, her family devote all the money that they have for her brother’s education and, when Adah is finally allowed to study, this is only to make her a better marriageable commodity. To Adah, marriage means the fulfillment of her childhood dream to emigrate to England where her husband is going to complete his studies. Initially left behind, Adah finally joins Francis in England with the couple’s two children. She soon discovers that her childhood vision of England as the land of opportunity was clearly the result of the cultural domination of the colonizers. The new country reserves a cold welcome to Adah who is discriminated against by whites because she is Black and by her own community because she refuses to comply with prescribed gender roles. Emecheta effectively draws the reader’s attention to the paradoxical nature of traditional gender beliefs within the Nigerian immigrant community. On one hand, Francis firmly believes that a woman’s place is in the home. On the other hand, he is fully dependent on Adah, who supports the whole family with her salary as librarian. By the end of the novel, Adah refuses to be further harassed by her husband and becomes aware of her potential to sustain her children alone.

Adah’s ability to rise above her unhappy marriage is paralleled by Emecheta’s own progress as a writer, which she details in her autobiography, Head Above Water (1986). Yet her portrayal of female characters has also sparked some controversy. Although Emecheta celebrates women’s resourcefulness, fellow Black women writers such as Flora Nwapa have taken issue with her definition of women as “second-class citizens” because it implies potential passivity and underscores the gender divide as one of the major elements in Nigerian society.

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