It is no secret that Africans, no matter which part of the world they reside in, often become subject to racism, which takes brutal forms. It is horrifying how, even in 2020, we come across cases of violence, police misconduct, marginalization, and misrepresentation of the Blacks by the mainstream media. Undoubtedly, African men have to go through a lot just because of their skin color but the ones worst affected are the Black women. They were often reduced to the stereotypical image of an overweight, confrontational, finger-pointing, and loudmouthed woman. While Black men are safe in their own country (mostly), the women have to bear the brunt of oppression and marginalization even in their own homes. Right from the start, Black women were marginalized by the colonizers and the patriarchy within their society.
The Joys of Motherhood (Review)
The portrayal of women in African literature has often been problematic. Women in these books are not depicted as characters of flesh and blood but as symbols and abstractions. They are presented either as nurturers or courtesans, benefiting the men in both cases. Buchi Emecheta‘s novel “The Joys of Motherhood” gives us a break from the stereotypical narratives about Black women being portrayed as manipulative and oversexed. Here, we see from the very beginning how a woman’s confidence, arrogance, and sauciness don’t add to her dignity. The traits are solely for enticing and entertaining the men. More than the Igbo tribal society’s norms, colonialism posed a bigger threat to Nigerian women’s collective well-being. Western capitalism has had a destructive influence on autonomy as well as the relative power of Igbo women.
In the late twentieth century, reclaiming the concept of the family became very important for women as the slave trade distorted the whole idea of family. This is where the significance of womanism comes in. ‘Womanism’ as a term was coined by Alice Walker to focus on women’s rights to have a functional family. It emphasizes more on class and class-based subjugation. Wondering how it is different from feminism? Well, Walker has an apt answer for that: “Womanist is to feminist what purple is to lavender.” Coming back to Emecheta, “The Joys of Motherhood” primarily throws light on women’s double marginalization by the white men and the men within their households. It holds a mirror to the plight of these individuals who not only suffer for being women but also because of being women of color. Joyce Banda has rightly said, “Most African women are taught to endure abusive marriages. They say endurance means a good wife but most women endure an abusive relationship because they are not empowered economically; they depend on their husbands.”
Emecheta gives an unbiased and detailed account of all kinds of subjugation. In The Joys of Motherhood, the mother (Agunwa) and mistress (Ona) are both victims of patriarchy. While Agunwa dies of heartbreak, Ona’s tragedy lies in her traits, which do not empower her in any way. Agbadi’s jumping on her is less about lust and more about authority and power struggle. It was his way of ‘disciplining’ her. Most of the relationships that we encounter in the text are loaded with toxicity and deep-rooted patriarchy.
The glorification of motherhood strips the women off sexuality and erases the physical and psychological pain of childbirth. The idea of labor of any kind is intrinsically linked to gender. Society would not let you be ‘unproductive.’ Chores and childbirth are both different forms of labor. If not child labor, women need to work in the fields. We witness how Ona’s daughter Nnu Ego is reduced to “any farm help” just because she couldn’t give Amatokwu a child. She is a manly woman in their eyes. She is not even allowed sex or intimacy. The inherent patriarchy in traditional societies doesn’t see childless women as women at all. Nnu is immediately assigned an inferior position as she couldn’t be a mother. It is a society where even the vegetables are gendered. While yams and coconuts are masculine, melons, pumpkins, and beans are considered feminine.
The process of gendering takes place at the site of the body itself. The two men, Amatokwu and Nnaife, present two different traditions. It is the original creation laid in contrast with the tradition created by colonial modernity. Nnaife, “a womanly man,” is the racial other of Nnu Ego. Many postcolonial texts use the emasculated colonized male figure as a trope. This concept of a “womanly man” is also a form of emasculation by the colonizers. It is the site of the woman’s body where racial stereotypes play. The colored woman’s body is hypersexualized, and it becomes a construct, an illusion for serving the imperial project and legitimizing the colonial discourse. It is also interesting to see Agbadi as an epitome of traditional manhood and Ona as an epitome of the traditional, fertile woman. She depicts a woman of a certain culture. As her name suggests, she is like a priced jewel owned, controlled, and constricted by her father and Agbadi. In other words, her arrogance and independence are of little use as she is a puppet in the hands of patriarchy. Interestingly, there is an abundance of freedom and romance in the depiction of Ona as opposed to the image of her daughter Nnu Ego wretched and poverty-stricken.
The narrator’s voice is loaded with irony as she talks of slavery. It makes for an important part of the text as slavery not only comes in a traditional form but also in the form of colonization. Remarks like “job as the white man’s servant,” “burning wooden tobacco,” and soap being a sign of Nnaife’s sanitized and washed off masculinity. All these depict the shift from agrarian to modernity, which hugely impacts Nnu Ego’s life. The alien setup, new religion, and details of the mundane life tell us about Nnu Ego’s everyday struggles. There is no equal distribution of workload in Lagos. All the components of gender and labor keep intersecting. What is very unfortunate is to see men reaping benefits of both the worlds: They very conveniently mingle with the Western world while keeping the regressive patriarchy of the cyclic African world intact.
Society takes away the luxury of private life. The public and private become one, and it’s the women who always suffer. Both Agbadi and Nnaife take great pride in humiliating and taming women with the audience involved. Women have no place to go apart from taking refuge among the other women of the community. They become shoulders to cry and lean on and help Nnu Ego is earning a stable income. They share their suffering of being the victims of patriarchy, impoverished lifestyles, marital rapes, producing babies after babies, being beaten by the ‘men’ of the household, and so on. We also see how suffering becomes a female inheritance in the text as Nnaife inherits his dead brother’s wives."The glorification of motherhood strips the women off sexuality and erases the physical and psychological pain of childbirth." Click To Tweet
Throughout her life, Nnu Ego faces several menacing forces- colonial, patriarchal, industrial, and of course, traditional. She constantly tries to negotiate with all these forces with all her might but, apparently, constantly fails. She is chastised when she tries to hold onto her traditional values resisting colonial modernity. The alien world marginalizes her even more, and people claimed that Lagos contaminated her. She is stuck at a place devoid of privileges and joys of community. The men are all slaves of white men’s pride. The colonizers are controlling personal lives. From a community-based secured place, Nnu Ego moves to an industrial space devoid of security and hope. It is a clear binary between the pre-colonial Igbo village and the colonial Lagos, where men have no time to love. Nnu Ego gradually internalizes the colonial way of living. Adaku, on the other hand, when writes her own destiny, is heavily criticized and bashed by her own folks. Initially, we see a perfectly well-balanced patriarchal contrast where the man provides food and impregnate women. Then, things take a different turn, and ultimately, Nnu Ego becomes the breadwinner of the house.
We don’t really see Emecheta coming up with any solution to this double marginalization and plight of the Black women. They are forever trapped in the chains of the stinking patriarchy and the chains of the modern world. However, the ending is pretty intriguing as Nnu Ego, after her death, becomes a spirit with a vengeance on her mind. She doesn’t let any Igbo woman bear children but is that really vengeance or a blessing in disguise? Did she want to keep these women away from the joys of motherhood, or was she saving them from all the suffering that comes in the name of… the joys of motherhood?
The Joys of Motherhood
The portrayal of women in African literature has often been problematic. Women in these books are not depicted as characters of flesh and blood but as symbols and abstractions. They are presented either as nurturers or courtesans, benefiting the men in both cases. Buchi Emecheta's novel "The Joys of Motherhood" gives us a break from the stereotypical narratives about Black women being portrayed as manipulative and oversexed. Here, we see from the very beginning how a woman's confidence, arrogance, and sauciness don't add to her dignity. The traits are solely for enticing and entertaining the men. More than the Igbo tribal society's norms, colonialism posed a bigger threat to Nigerian women's collective well-being. Western capitalism has had a destructive influence on autonomy as well as the relative power of Igbo women.
Author: Buchi Emecheta