Second-Class Citizen

Second-Class Citizen, Buchi Emecheta’s second novel originally published in 1974, tells, in large part, her own story. Born in Nigeria in 1944, she married in 1960 after the death of both her parents (her father when she was only nine). Within two years she had two children, and, when her husband left for England, she soon followed him, arriving in 1962. The marriage was not a happy one and, despite her role as the family’s main financial support, and further children, she began to write. Ten years later her first novel, In the Ditch, was published.

“I always believe that given the big E – education – the position of women can be very positive,” Emecheta has said, and the fate of women in her novels often depends on how educated they are. In Second-Class Citizen, Adana has to fight to be educated. Significantly, the novel opens with the story of her simply turning up at the nearest school:

“I came to school – my parents would not send me!”

When her father dies, she is only allowed to continue her education as “somebody pointed out that the longer she stayed at school, the bigger the dowry her future husband would pay for her.” She pays to sit the common entrance exam to progress to high school by stealing two shillings she is given to buy meat, and will not confess even when she is beaten; as she wins a scholarship she is allowed to go. Even her marriage is motivated by her love of education as:

“To read for a degree, to read for the entrance examination, or even for more ‘A’ levels, one needed a home. Not just any home where there would be trouble today and fights tomorrow, but a good quiet atmosphere where she could study in peace.”

As she cannot live alone, marriage is the only option. He education allows her to get a good job as a librarian in the American Consulate, but this also proves a burden, the first of many years where she will be the main wage-earner, supporting and resented by her husband, Francis. The marriage, too, does not give her the freedom she hoped:

“So she was to stay in Nigeria, finance her husband, give his parents expensive gifts occasionally, help in paying the school fees for some of the girls, look after her young children and what then, rot?”

Again, she fights to follow her husband to England, a dream she has had since she was a child.

London, however, is far from a dream, and Emecheta portrays the life of an immigrant in the 1960s in depressing detail. Compared to Nigeria, their accommodation is small, a single room with the toilet “outside, four flights of stairs down, in the yard” and no bathroom or kitchen. She finds Francis changed – freed from his mother and father he is now prepared to hit her, and seems to have accepted that they are worth less because of their skin colour:

“What worried her most was the description ‘second-class’. Francis had become so conditioned by the phrase that he was not only living up to it but enjoying it, too. He kept pressing Adah to get a job in a short factory.”

Perhaps because Adah has already spent her life fighting against being deemed ‘second-class’ as a woman, she refuses to accept being similarly classified because she is black. In any case, her trials remain largely rooted in her gender, even when, again, she finds a good job in a library: finding adequate childcare, accessing birth control without her husband’s permission. Race, however, is a factor when they need to look for new accommodation:

“Every door seemed barred against them; nobody would consider accommodating them, even when they were willing to pay double the normal rate.”

Adah begins to disguise her voice when phoning to enquire about rooms to rent. However, the landlady changes her mind as soon as she sees them:

“At first Adah thought the woman was about to have an epileptic seizure. As she opened the door, the woman clutched at her throat with one hand, her little mouth opening and closing as if gasping for air, and her bright kitten-like eyes dilated to their full extent.”

It’s the smaller details which demonstrate Adah’s difficulties, however, as when she is in hospital having yet another child and she cannot ask Francis to buy her a nightdress with the money she has earned. Yet ultimately this is a novel of hope: Adah never stops fighting, no matter how difficult her life becomes, for her future and her children’s future:

“She was different. Her children were going to be different. They were all going to be black, they were going to enjoy being black, be proud of being black, a black of a different breed.”

Writing about Emecheta in 2017, her son Sylvester Onwordi lamented:

“My deepest sorrow was that Buchi did not understand how much she was loved by her readership not only in continental Africa, but all over the world.”

Hopefully the well-deserved publication of Second-Class Citizen as a Penguin Modern Classic goes some way to demonstrating this.

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4 Responses to “Second-Class Citizen”

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    I loved her novel The Joys of Motherhood and am planning to read more if her work this year, including Second Class Citizen. Wonderful review, such a delight to see it here.

    • 1streading Says:

      I had actually read some of her books in the 1980s (but sadly no longer had my copies) and was delighted to see this published by Penguin Classics – who are also publishing The Joys of Motherhood in September.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds like a really powerful read, Grant, and definitely a worthy addition to the PMC range.

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