Second-Class Citizen

by Buchi Emecheta

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Second-Class Citizen Themes

The main themes in Second-Class Citizen are racism and prejudice, gender roles and misogyny, motherhood, and immigration.

  • Racism and prejudice: The novel presents many examples of the discrimination that affects Adah because she is Black.
  • Gender roles and misogyny: Adah is denied education and independence by society—in both Nigeria and the UK—and her husband due to her gender.
  • Motherhood: Though motherhood presents a burden for Adah as the sole earner of her household with Francis, she also feels deep love for and commitment to her children.
  • Immigration: Second-Class Citizen paints a realistic portrait of the struggles of immigration.

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Themes

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Racism and Prejudice

Second-Class Citizen presents racism and prejudice as barriers to Adah as she attempts to achieve her dreams. The blatant racism against Black people in London is especially prominent when Adah seeks accommodations for her family in chapter 6; most advertisements include the line “Sorry, no coloureds.” Adah and Francis face discrimination firsthand when they go to view a two-room apartment. The woman with whom Adah spoke on the phone to arrange the viewing of the rooms invited her over, but Adah had also disguised her voice so the woman would not know she was Black. When the couple arrives, the woman sticks her head out the window before coming downstairs, but she apparently could not see them well, judging on her shocked reaction when she opens the door:

Adah thought the woman was about to have an epileptic seizure. . . . She made several attempts to talk, but no sound came.

When the landlady finally speaks, she tells them the rooms have just been let, and it is obvious that her decision is based on their race. Even though Adah has been made aware of racism in London before this incident, she hasn’t “faced rejection in this manner.”

Emecheta also depicts prejudice among Nigerian immigrants in London, where Yoruba and Ibo people adopt suspicious and stereotypical views toward one another. The Yoruba people even think Ibos are cannibals. Late in the novel, Adah must hide from a Yoruba landlord that she is Ibo in order to rent rooms for her and the children.

In their first apartment building in London, Adah and Francis are discriminated against by other Nigerian immigrants, both because they are Ibo and because the other tenants think that Adah and Francis, with their education and Adah’s respectable job history, feel superior to those who work in labor industries. The other tenants also judge Adah and Francis for not wanting to foster their children elsewhere, as many other young Nigerian couples have done. The prejudice against Adah and Francis leads to their family being evicted from the building. The other tenants “knew how difficult it would be for them, but that was their desired effect.”

Gender Roles and Misogyny

Adah’s options in life are determined by her gender. In Lagos, Adah must beg to go to school; as a girl, her formal education is much less important than that of her brother. Once she is finally able to begin her education, she must work to continue on to high school by winning a scholarship, and she repeatedly faces questions about why she is still going to school as she reaches a marriageable age.

As a teenager, Adah marries Francis Obi for security. However, in a reversal of traditional gender roles, Adah is the breadwinner of the family. Francis devotes his time to studying accounting, while Adah earns a good job at the American Consulate. Very early in the marriage, she becomes pregnant with their first two children in quick succession. Nevertheless, Francis does not work, and Adah continues to work and support the family.

Much of Adah’s life trajectory is determined by her biological identity as a woman, largely because she becomes pregnant so frequently and is not allowed to use contraception. Her husband treats her like a piece of property, meaning he can have sex with her whenever he pleases. After Adah nearly dies giving birth to their third child, she investigates birth control options, but when her husband learns she has been fitted with “the cap,” he is furious, shames her in front of others, and writes to his parents to expose her.

Francis regularly beats and verbally abuses his wife. When Adah is recovering from giving birth to their third and fourth children, he has to work temporarily and berates her for being “lazy.” He wonders why he bothered marrying an educated woman with a high bride-price if she just wanted to be a housewife.

Misogynistic attitudes are evident in traditional Nigerian perspectives toward children’s gender. When Vicky, Adah’s first son, is hospitalized with meningitis, she panics: a boy is considered so much more valuable than a girl. Adah wonders how she could explain to this white English nurse “that though a girl may be counted as one child, to her people a boy was like four children put together.” To some extent, she has absorbed her culture’s gender prejudices.

Adah also rebels against the gender norms of her culture, however, by supporting her family financially and working to become a published author. Even though her husband thinks she is deluded because she is both a woman and Black, Adah is determined to write, just as she was once determined to gain an education.

Motherhood

For Adah, the state of motherhood is a double-edged sword. She dearly loves her children and gives her all to supporting them, keeping them happy, and ensuring that they can get an education. The children also present a seemingly insurmountable burden, however, because Adah is the only parent working and earning money. She must leave jobs she enjoys to give birth and find new jobs quickly afterward so that the family can stay afloat financially.

After undergoing a cesarean section during the delivery of her third child, Adah must rest and recover, and she determines to care only for her children and no longer waste her energy on worrying about Francis. She also decides that she will not have any more children. Despite her knowledge that she is in London to continue her education, she is not able to do so under her current circumstances. After Adah secretly obtains birth control, Francis finds out and forbids its use. She gives birth to a fourth child and learns she is pregnant with a fifth while she is finally in the process of leaving Francis.

Adah resolves to protect her children, which includes taking them away from Francis. When fighting Francis in court at the end of the novel, Adah tells the judge,

The children are mine, and that is enough. I shall never let them down as long as I am alive.

The novel presents an interesting parallel between Adah’s novel and her children, comparing the experience of giving birth to that of completing her book. Bill tells her that authors call their work their “brainchild,” a phrase in which Adah takes great pleasure.

Immigration

Second-Class Citizen honestly portrays the struggles and outright failures that can accompany immigration. It is aspirational for Nigerians to go to London, receive a stellar education, and return to be powerful and successful in their native land. However, the novel suggests that this road to success is often very difficult, and many people do not achieve what they hope to after arriving in the UK.

Pa Noble is one such example. A Nigerian man, he strove to study in England and return to fanfare in Nigeria. Instead, he failed his law exams, injured himself doing manual labor, and now makes money by renting rooms in a rundown house. Francis, too, never passes his exams and does not achieve his goal of going into the Civil Service as an accountant. Adah is not able to pursue her education as she had planned, both because she must work and because she repeatedly becomes pregnant.

Even when they do honest work, it is difficult for immigrants to move up the socioeconomic ladder due to racial discrimination and xenophobia. While there is a sense of hope for Adah at the end of the novel, Emecheta gives a soberingly realistic view of what it was like to move from Lagos to London in the 1960s.

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