Our Sister Killjoy: Characterizing Immigration/Emigration

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

Sissie's first encounter with racism takes place immediately upon her departure from Ghana on the plane to Europe which symbolically is coming from South Africa thus highlighting not only the continued presence of racism but also its relationship to the colonization of the African continent. Her second encounter with racism follows shortly thereafter at a railway station in Germany when a German woman points her out to her daughter as a black woman. For Sissie, these two incidences are a confrontation with the reality of racism which force her to recognize the way in which racial difference is used to construct and prop up power structures in a way in which she has never before experienced. As Aidoo says, "[f]or the rest of her life, she was to regret this moment when she was made to notice differences in human colouring . . . she also came to know that someone somewhere would always see in any kind of difference, an excuse to be mean." (p.12-13). This statement is followed by an enumeration of the material gains that have been made and justified through the use of racist ideologies particularly as these functioned within the colonialist project to accrue land, minerals, power and other material benefits.

Sissie's stay in Germany is marked by her relationship with Marija, the German housewife who befriends her. Marija exemplifies in many ways a different form of racism which manifests itself through her ignorance of anything that is not Western. In Marija, thus, eurocentricism and racism seem to be aligned as it is primarily through her ignorant of non-Western cultures that her racism is manifested. Her Western bias is evident in her assumption that Sissie is Indian (the assumption it seems being that all those who are not descendants of the Aryan race are the same) and in the fact that she thinks that Ghana is near Canada clearly demonstrating her inability to even imagine another part of the world that exists outside of the Western developed nations. Likewise, she has no understanding of the history of colonialism and is therefore unable to understand the meaning of Sissie's Christian name, Mary, as a symbol of the Missionaries role in the colonial project and in the subjugation of the African people. Sissie in this society becomes an exotic specimen to be observed by the people of the host country who are drawn to her but also, in her friendship with Marija, perceive her as a threat to the prevailing social order which cannot allow a friendship between a German housewife and an African woman. She is an object which can be admired at a distance but must not be treated as a person with whom one can interact on an intimate basis.

Sissie and Marija's relationship points to the complexities of different power structures and the inability for personal relationships to be unmarked by these. It seems that Marija is drawn to Sissie precisely because she represents some sort of escape from the constraints and the mundane quality of her daily life. Marija is a lower class woman who seems aspires to a bourgeois lifestyle which is impossible for her to attain because of the material restraints imposed on her by class domination. Sissie clearly sympathizes with her plight and yet as their relationship progresses and takes on the form of a love affair, she realizes her position of power and the way in which she can abuse that power. She takes on the role of the male in a sexist heterosexual relationship and comes to understand the "power it affords one to inflict pain on others," which makes her feel "like a bastard. Not a bitch. A bastard." (p.75). She becomes like "one of these black boys in one of these involvements with white girls in Europe" (p.61) about which she has heard stories that incite in her a feeling of horror and aversion. The aversion which Sissie feels at the thought of these interracial relationships demonstrates her strong attachments to a cultural nationalist ideology which makes her perceive these relationships as inevitably leading to "Lost Black minds" (p.62). Aidoo seems to draw on other stories of 'been-to's and their relationships with European women as they have been recounted by other authors, and demonstrates how Sissie falls into this model and through it comes to a realization about the "corrupting magnitude of systematic exploitation." Both Marija and Sissie become through their relationship "too aware of the sad ways of man," (p.48) and Sissie in particular gains a greater awareness of the ways in which personal relationships are influenced by larger systems of power and exploitation.

While the Western developed countries are constructed and in a sense mythologized in Africa as lands of prosperity which guarantee instant success and wealth to those who are lucky enough to attain them; Aidoo demonstrates that the reality is very different for the majority of immigrants to these countries. In particular, Aidoo focuses on the experience of African immigrants in England as it is the former colonial power which in colonial ideology was glorified as the ideal to which all should aspire, the pinnacle of civilized society. The extent to which this idea is perpetuated is manifested in the huge number of immigrants who leave their countries to seek their fortunes in the former colonial power. Sissie upon arriving in England is surprised at "finding so many Black people there." (p.85) as she was unaware of the full extent to which emigration from Africa occurs. The fact that this comes as a surprise to Sissie perhaps demonstrates her own Afrocentrism as it seems that she is unable to perceive Europe's population as anything other than white and does not realize the effects that immigration have perhaps had on European society and culture. For, As Ahmad points out, decolonization ironically led to an upsurge in immigration from the former colonies to England, saying :

The paradox about Britain, meanwhile, is that its non-European population remained relatively small throughout the colonial period, but then Black immigration - from Africa, the Caribbean, and principally from the Asian subcontinent picked up appreciably after decolonization...

Aidoo makes it clear, however, that the reality is that the majority of immigrants to England do not find the prosperity, wealth and freedom that they set out to attain but on the contrary, their experience is one of poverty and exploitation. The poverty of Africans in London is primarily demonstrated by Aidoo through a description of the clothes worn by African immigrants in London which take on greater importance given the cold climate which they are not accustomed to. Sissie realizes "from one quick composite vision, that in a cold land, poverty shows as nowhere else." (p.89) and describes the "motley of fabrics and colours" in which Africans in London dress to keep warm. The shoes in particular demonstrate the failure of life in England to live up to the expectations of these immigrants; they are "...always cheap. Cheap plastic versions of the latest middle-class fashions," which demonstrate both the aspirations to bourgeois ideals and the material inability to attain these. Aidoo shatters the colonial myth of a glorified and idealized England and demonstrates that the former 'colonial home' contains nothing for the formerly colonized people but new forms of oppression and subjugation. As she says,

...the story is as old as empires. Oppressed multitudes from the provinces rush to the imperial seat because that is where they know all salvation comes from. But as other imperial subjects in other times and other places have discovered, for the slave, there is nothing at the centre but worse slavery.(p.88).

In debunking the myths surrounding England and the Western developed countries, Aidoo also shatters the aura of prestige and glory that is bestowed upon the 'been-to's in African societies by virtue of their experience abroad and shows that their privileged status is based on a false perception on the glories of West and not on the reality of their experiences. She emphasizes that,

They lied.
They lied.
They lied.
The Been-tos lied.(p.91).

The 'been-tos' thus participate in the perpetuation of glorified ideas of the West in such a way that leads to further emigration and contributes to the further exploitation of Africans abroad, the majority of whom do not find the wealth and prosperity they seek but only poverty and degradation.

The poverty, racism and degradation which African immigrants experience abroad in the Western developed countries is frequently evoked in African literature to contradict the glorified image of these as lands of freedom and opportunity and demonstrate that the reality for most African immigrants is far different from the idealized versions frequently presented by 'been-tos'. Like Aidoo, writers such as Buchi Emecheta and Amma Darko have recounted the difficulties which Africans abroad face. Emecheta in Second Class Citizen, recounts the horrific experiences of a Nigerian woman, Adah, who travels to England to be with her husband who is studying there and to provide a Western education for her children. Although part of the elite in Nigeria, Adah learns quickly that all Africans are 'second-class citizens in the colonial 'home'. As her husband tells her, "'you may have hundreds of servants : you may be living like an elite, but the day you land in England, you are a second-class citizen . . . we are all second-class.'" Like Sissie, Adah is confronted with racism and learns the way in which race becomes a means of justifying oppression. As she searches for a place to live, "Her house-hunting was made more difficult because she was black . . . She was beginning to learn that her colour was something she was supposed to be ashamed of." Adah, however, unlike Sissie, is less concerned with the poverty and degradation that all immigrants suffer in England, than she is with the loss of her own class status and privilege that immigration entails. She is horrified not because of the poverty that she sees other Africans face but rather because she now occupies the same class status as those "Nigerians who called her madam at home; some of [whom] were of the same educational background as her paid servants." Emecheta, like Aidoo thus demonstrates that what awaits many Africans in England is not prosperity and freedom but racism, oppression and poverty; however, Emecheta differs greatly from Aidoo in that she is concerned primarily with the loss of class privilege that this entails for the African elite. Aidoo, on the other hand, focuses on those Africans who emigrate to escape material difficulties in Africa and instead only find more degradation and poverty.

[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]

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Last Modified: 29 April, 2002