The Term Postcolonial and Emecheta's The Slave Girl

Gregory Gipson, English 27, Autumn 1997

Like Yvonne Vera's Nehanda, Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl, is intrinsically linked to the idea of the postcolonial: The Slave Girl is the story of a young girl, Ojebeta, who is sold into slavery in what is now part of Nigeria, in the early years of the twentieth century. As one might expect, the novel is a critique, and in this case condemnation, of women's role in African society; Emecheta makes extensive use of the metaphor of slavery to drive her point about women's lot home. Nehanda is of a different order: it is a mythologization and poeticization of historical fact as well as something of a judgement. Born of Zimbabwe and tied to the first Chimurenga, or liberation war, of 1897, it demands knowledge of Zimbabwean cultural and national history. Neither of these novels is ambiguous about its efforts to be a work of postcolonial fiction -- the challenge is to see how well each succeeds.

Emecheta's novel is a searing indictment both of slavery and of the imbalanced gender roles of the African society in which the story takes place. Using Ojebeta as the example, the novel unfolds onto a very tightly controlled path, following to the bitter end its thesis that women were slaves no matter what their actual legal or social status: slaves as property, slaves as wives, slaves as chattel, women were slaves. The novel is riddled with lines which point out this status as such, not compromising in any way to tell the story smoothly. For instance, when one of the market women walks back to her stall after going to restrain Ojebeta, who has just been unknowingly sold into slavery, from running to her brother, it is an occasion for the woman to muse that "it [slavery] might be evil, but it was a necessary evil" (Emecheta, 64). Indeed, the last lines of the book, which find Ojebeta freed from slavery by her husband's payment to the son of her master, leave the reader with a distinctly polemical note:

So as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped the slavery which she had helped to establish in all her black colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty-five, was changing masters.(Emecheta, 179)

This invocation of Britain in a novel which has focused exclusively on Africans is curious, and leads the attentive reader to other such references, as when the novel explains rather matter-of-factly that "all white people were called [Potokis]; it was only much later that those living in the hinterland realised that the Portuguese had long since given way to the English, who brought with them a hypocritical kind of Christianity." (Emecheta, 20). What mean these occasional and rather mysterious references to Europeans? As one reflects further, the Prologue comes to mind, with its story of the founding of Eke Market in Ojebeta's hometown, and its tone of oral history, an element absent from the rest of the novel, written as it is in a realist style. And suddenly, the obvious appears: The Slave Girl is novel written for a Western audience: it is a postcolonial novel written for the colonialists, and as such, finds it expedient to make emphatic judgements and clear points, sometimes at the expense of authorial credibility. Emecheta inserts so many asides and factual details because she is writing for an audience which she expects to be ignorant of many cultural details and contexts; so she steps out of the story in order to fill in the general reader. And yet one of the components which make a postcolonial work postcolonial is, by our definition, a grounding in the cultural and historical contexts of the people who are the work's subjects. How grounded is The Slave Girl when it is perpetually jumping between contexts? In fact, were Emecheta not well-versed in Nigerian life she would be unable to depict it, even if explaining vital details all the way. Her didactic mission, however, must necessarily undermine her ability to place her story in its proper timeframe. When she explains details that will only be known in the future relative to the story, she places her evaluation not only in a postcolonial context, but in a retroactive one, endangering the very point she wished to promote by sacrificing a certain degree of the characters' ethos: the reader is made fully aware that the thoughts and words of these characters are created to convey a late twentieth-century feminist viewpoint. If one is the sort who enjoys a didactic novel, there are no problems; however, if reading tastes run more to subtlety, The Slave Girl is not likely to satisfy. Whatever its literary value, however, Emecheta's novel cannot be placed outside the sense of the word postcolonial -- it is decidedly and emphatically that.


Emecheta, Buchi. The Slave Girl. George Braziller, Inc., New York NY, 1977.

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