The primary definition of the
word ‘margin’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an edge, a
border: that part of a surface which lies immediately within its boundary, esp.
when in some way marked off or distinguished from the rest of the surface”1.
This contrasts with the meaning of centre as “the middle point…something
regarded as central, principal, essential, most significant”2.
It is well known that when someone is regarded as the ‘centre’, they are more highly
influential and powerful than the ‘margin’, and Pratibha Parmar identifies the
ethnic minorities Asian and black, as representative of these marginal groups. Parmar
argues in her essay ‘Black Feminism: The Politics of Articulation’3,
that black and Asian women deliberately strive to challenge this binary
hierarchy of centre and margin, in order to reject and refuse to submit to
their position as the ‘Other’. Also proposed by the OED, the term ‘Other’, is
to “conceptualise (a people, a group, etc.) as excluded and intrinsically
different from oneself”4.
This essay aims to investigate how two authors explore binary oppositions in
terms of race and gender, in alternative ways. The margin is referred to women
and coloured people, and the centre referring to men and the white race.
Parmar argues in her essay that black
and Asian women refused their place as the Other, through their narratives and
writings, as well as collectively working together. She explains the hardships
and struggles black women as the inferior race faced, as they were unwillingly cast
into this marginalised role. However, it was this that motivated black women to
collectively unite separately from the all race Women’s Liberation Movement, so
that it would serve to be specifically beneficial for black women. This was due
to the fact that the feminist movement lacked in consideration of black women
and isolated themselves. Parmar states they collectively referred to themselves
as “we”, thus creating differences between white and black women, despite the
group engaging in a series of political campaigns over a mutual goal: campaigning
for women’s rights and reforms on issues. Parmar states that such experiences
resulted in black women to look to each other for ‘collective strength’5,
and as a result aimed to express and assert their identity as black women through
writing, even if they ‘fought for and negotiated’ for this to happen6.
She states that black women fought to ‘assert privately and publicly our sense
within their daily encounters of discrimination as well as a collective
European thought of linking inferiority to black women and women in general. Parmar’s
statements are confirmed in Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second-Class Citizen, as Emecheta uses writing as a form of going
against the binary hierarchy of centre and margin, in terms of gender. Writing
a novel in the 1970s as a black woman and feminist writer, Emecheta aims to
show how black women would not submit to their role as the inferior gender. Instead,
she highlights the subordinate status of women both in the Nigerian context and
British context of London metropolis, and aims to stop the binary hierarchy of men
being the centre and women, the margin.
Similarly, Parmar’s statement
also seems to resonate throughout Sam Selvon’s novel, The Lonely Londoners. Despite written by a male author, Selvon highlights
the prejudice that black lower working-class men faced whilst living in Britain
during the 1950s, post-World War II. Moses, the protagonist, states, “they
don’t tell you outright that they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say
sorry the vacancy get filled”8.
However, Selvon’s characters obstructs the binary hierarchy of black men as the
margin in a white dominated society, by refusing to accept their situation. Selvon
shows how the men continuously try to create a new life for themselves despite
facing numerous difficulties and discrimination based on their race, “like Cap,
Bart moving from place to place week after week”9.
The repetition of Moses’s speech emphasises the monotonous struggle the men had
to go through and endure, purely to survive. However, by learning to survive
and adapt to their new environment, Selvon proves how the margin refuses to
conform to their role, but rather have the same opportunities by working to be
equal to white men. Similar to Emecheta, Selvon uses his narratives to evoke
the experiences of West Indian immigrants in a white British society, and show
their refusal of the marginalisation against them by revealing the racial
divide of London. He also exposes the fluctuating landscape of London that could
no longer be ignored, marking Waterloo Station as “a place of arrival and
for the influx of migrants to Britain. This is especially so, after the British
Nationality Act of 1948. Selvon shows how the Wind rush period resulted in
blacks experiencing discrimination and hardships in finding employment and
decent housing, and contrasts immigrant’s expectations with reality and their actual
experiences. By providing a ‘voice’ to his various male black characters,
Selvon shows in his writing that there were numerous men who came to London during
this time for a better life. Although faced with hardships, they managed to
adapt and overcome this.
Although this essay agrees with Parmar’s
argument, that texts written by black writers do challenge the perceived notion
of black people labelled as the margin. However, it would be more accurate to
state that in addition to this, they also aim to expose and bring awareness to
the problems within ethnic minority communities including the black community,
in order to call for change. Therefore, just like Selvon’s novel, this idea is also
clearly evident in Emecheta’s Second-Class
Citizen, as both authors highlight how black people tolerated the inferiority
imposed on them by the superior white society, as the former became accustomed to
discrimination. Yet although faced with hardships, both novels show how black
people managed to adapt and overcome prejudice in differing ways. The
protagonist Adah Obi in Second-Class
Citizen, uses her writing to go against the binary hierarchy of centre and
margin, in terms of race. Emecheta highlights the Black British experience of diaspora
through Adah’s determination and courage to live equally as a black woman in a
white dominated country stating, “Adah was like a peacock, who kept wanting to
win all the time. Only first-class citizens lived with their children, not the
Automatically submitted to an inferior position as a second-class citizen when she
moved to England, the novel explores how Adah learnt to survive as a young female,
a writer, and a wife during 1970s Britain.
Moreover, Emecheta shows how Adah
as a black female, goes against all odds including prejudice and the patriarch,
to achieve her dreams. Due to the social conventions in Nigeria, Adah was
expected to follow the norms of the patriarchal household, including her
husband’s superiority over her and her role as the subordinate and submissive
Nigerian wife. She tolerated them by getting married in order to complete her
education, as “In Lagos, at that time, teenagers were not allowed to live by
themselves…in short, Adah had to marry”12.
Even as a young girl, she fought for her right to education by stealing the money
for her school examinations, and enduring the backlash from her cousin Vincent,
“after the burning of the first few strokes, her skin became hardened, and so
did her heart”, however she knew that “she was being punished for what she
Emecheta therefore shows Adah refuses to submit to her roles, but instead she constantly
chases her dreams despite many setbacks and obstacles along the way. Despite
Adah being limited by the boundaries of her race and gender on what she could
do and achieve, she still persevered through. Additionally, Emecheta shows Adah’s
experiences with discrimination and marginalisation from the British who saw
her as the inferior race. This is evident when she experienced difficulty
during house hunting as nobody wanted to rent their house to black people, “Adah
had never faced rejection in this manner. Not like this, directly…just because they
Emecheta as a feminist writer, therefore shines light on the difficulties women
and black woman in particular, faced both in her own culture and in a white-dominated
Furthermore, Emecheta drives a message
throughout her entire novel through to the ending, that just like broken
dreams, women of colour will always be bound by their race and gender. Despite Adah
removing herself from her toxic, exploitative patriarchal relationship and
asserting her independence as a woman, Adah’s reality as a second-class in
citizen in Britain meant she would always be the inferior race and gender. The
binary hierarchy of centre and margin is very applicable here, as black people
were marginalised in the 1970s when the novel was published. This is also
evident when Francis burns the manuscript to his wife’s novel, which highlights
how the patriarch are always in control, as the burned book represents a black
woman’s voice ruthlessly being suppressed, “Francis was burning her story; he
had burned it all”15.
Alternatively, from the final image of Adah breaking free and averting the
patriarchal social code, by finally seeking independence, “the law must step in…she
needed protection against this type of destruction”16,
Emecheta inspires hope for black women by showing Adah’s personal development. At
first, she was ignorant and submissive, but learnt to create a new life for
herself and this reflects Parmar’s message of Black women refusing the role
that society places them in as the “Other’.
Similarly, like Emecheta, Selvon
aimed to provoke change through his novel, The
Lonely Londoners. Selvon had a significant influence on generations of
writers after him, as he formed a community of West Indian writers, who
followed his steps in changing the scene of the Black British writing
experience. His novel arguably marked the first literary work to focus on the
migrant experience including poor, male working-class blacks and to which Maya
Angelou referred to him as the ‘father of black literature’17.
Writers in his generation shared in common Selvon’s characters experience in
Britain as a migrant’s dreams did not match with their experience upon arrival.
This disappointment upon arrival was an important theme in writing during this
period and heavily prevalent in The Lonely
Londoners. The men had illusions of migrating to Britain, where the streets
would be “paved with gold”, when in reality Selvon shows their authentic
confrontation with England did not match up to their idealised conception of
London. Their experience of arriving as a west Indian migrant in Britain was
worsened by their disappointment to learn that the British did not know
anything about the Caribbean, highlighting the British ignorance, “whatever the
newspaper and the radio say in this country, that is the people Bible”18.
Selvon reflects the themes of
exile and alienation in his novel, showing how society was divided by race,
with the West Indians pouring in to the country post World War Two exposing the
truth and bitterness of being a black person in a white dominated society. Moses
represents the majority of black people who felt alienated amongst the British
citizens, as they were insecure of how they were perceived by the latter, “you
might notice we don’t talk much in the tube because it making too much noise”19.
Selvon also shows how black people learnt to adapt to their position as the
‘Other’, and overcome obstacles through Cap, who sponges money off from
strangers in order to survive, “so what he doing is sleep in the day, and go
out to look for cat and sponge a meal whenever he could”20.
Selvon highlights the prejudice there was in London and the different ways black
men hustled in order to survive. The novel therefore reflects Selvon’s message
that black people’s survival was dependent by their own determination to live.
Overall, Parmar shows how Black
and Asian women fought to establish themselves as equal, rather than allow
themselves to simply be deemed as the ‘Other’. Emecheta’s writing is a prime
example, as she explores post-colonial migrants inhabiting histories of diaspora,
who fled in hopes of seeking a better life. Emecheta’s ending could be looked
at as hopeful, that a black woman was able to defy and resist the patriarchy
culture, with the heroine finally seizing independence for herself. Like Parmar
states, Adah refuses her place as the ‘Other’ by literally and metaphorically
breaking free and Emecheta exposes to the reader the harsh realities and
struggles black, female immigrants experience. Her novel therefore redefines
femininity, through Adah’s personal journey of development, as she disrupts the
restrictions she faces as the ‘Other’. Similarly, Selvon shows how despite
numerous obstacles facing his black male characters, they learnt to survive the
discrimination they faced. It could be said that both Selvon and Emecheta truly
changed the fictional landscape of London by providing a voice for the black
British male and female. Through their narratives, they thwarted the binary hierarchy
of margin and centre, proving that the margin, both in terms of race and
gender, can be equal to their counterparts.
1 Oed.com, Home: Oxford English Dictionary. online
Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/114041?rskey=zu075f&result=1#eid
accessed 1 Jan. 2018.
2 Oed.com, centre | center, n.1 and adj.: Oxford English
Dictionary. online Available at:
http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/29696?rskey=oGznw0&result=1#eid accessed 1
3 Pratibha Parmar, ‘Black Feminism: The
Politics of Articulation’, in J. Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence and
Wishart, 1990), pp.101-14.
4 Oed.com, Home: Oxford English Dictionary. online
http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/263193?rskey=mD82vB&result=2#eid accessed 1
5 Black Feminism: The Politics of
6 Black Feminism: The Politics of
7 Black Feminism: The Politics of
8 Sam, Selvon, The lonely Londoners.
London: Penguin Books, 2006, p.29.
9 Sam, Selvon, The lonely Londoners.
London: Penguin Books, 2006, p.49.
10 Sam, Selvon, The lonely Londoners.
London: Penguin Books, 2006, p.4.
11 Buchi, Emecheta, Second-class citizen.
Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1974, p.46.
12 Buchi, Emecheta, Second-class citizen.
Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1974, p.19.
13 Buchi, Emecheta, Second-class citizen.
Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1974, p.17.
14 Buchi, Emecheta, Second-class citizen.
Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1974. p.79.
15 Buchi, Emecheta, Second-class citizen.
Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1974. p.181.
16 Buchi, Emecheta, Second-class citizen.
Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1974, p.184.
17 David, Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-51. London:
Bloomsbury, 2008, p.521.
18 Sam, Selvon, The lonely Londoners.
London: Penguin Books, 2006, p.2.
19 Sam, Selvon, The lonely Londoners.
London: Penguin Books, 2006, p.16.
20Sam, Selvon, The lonely Londoners.
London: Penguin Books, 2006, p.33.