Uses of Childhood in Emecheta's Slave Girl

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

Emecheta's Slave Girl provides an account of childhood slightly different than Aké's -- here, rather than prefiguring adulthood, childhood determines it. For instance, Ojebeta's parents cover her in special tatoos and protect her with bells and cowries so that she can reach adulthood knowing all the while how much she is wanted and how special she is (21). If anything, this explanation early in the novel suggests that her childhood will prefigure a future adult greatness; no real difference so far from the philosophy of Aké. But then, suddenly, Ojebeta's parents die of "Felenza," and her brother needs money for his age-group festival, and so he sacrifices her childhood by selling her into slavery. In an instant, Ojebeta's future is no longer guided by heartfelt promises of love and attention, but by insistent demands for labor and service. And the childhood of slavery she thus enters in turn determines her adulthood -- an adulthood spent in a marriage in which she amounts to a "slave with a new master" (165). Temporally, then, Slave Girl centers on Ojebeta's lost youth; in order to make the loss a greater tragedy, the text includes a little bit of what came before this childhood-cum-servitude. It also includes a little of what comes afterwards in order to extend the childhood tragedy into a lifetime of bondage.

I stated above that Aké 's account of childhood differs from that of The Slave Girl in that for the former, childhood prefigures adulthood, whereas for the latter, childhood determines adulthood. I would like to expand on that distinction here. When childhood prefigures the adult, the adult stage is where meaning gets made, the adult is the you that defines who you are. Childhood feelings about culture and modernization, say, therefore already anticipate your future adult feelings. Thus, Wole's acute sensitivity to change and progress. On the other hand, when childhood determines the adult, identity gets constructed in childhood, and the youthful you defines who you are. In this case, childhood relations to culture and modernization -- for all their potential naivete -- determine adult relations. Hence Ojebeta's inability to change her lot, her confusion about the different ways of life she encounters, and her giggling reaction to the utter lack of modernity implied in her husband's purchase of her (179). Taking childhood as the definitional stage both gives the child more potential power, and makes it a grander tragedy when this power is lost. Prefiguring, by contrast, takes away the child's agency, but simultaneously makes a successful life all the more incredible for having been evident from birth. In short, this difference in epistemologies of childhood is key to the difference in tone between the two novels and equally key to their differing accounts of the larger world.

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