Black Girl is a short story by Sembene Osumane that explores the life of Diouana, a woman from Native Africa who idolizes France and dreams of exploring the place and ends up being a slave in France. The story explores themes of colonialism and racism.
Black Girl | Summary
The story begins with a woman stating the chief regarding the last time she saw their maid, Diouana. Madame Pouchet informed her that Diouana had locked herself in the bathroom, and she took a ladder to look inside to find Diouana covered in blood. The house is surrounded by officers, impatient reporters, and house members. The officers cross-question Madam Pouchet and she moves into a flashback of how she brought Diouana to France. In the flashback, Diouana lives in a village outside of Dakar. People are poor and illiterate, and Diouana is looking for a job. Madame Pouchet comes to look for a worker and feels Diouana is fit for the job. She is hired to take care of Madame’s children in Dakar. Later Diouana is excited when she is offered a job by Madame and Monsieur in France.
She leaves her home behind with new hopes of a new life in France. But she soon realizes her idea of France is reduced to the four walls of the villa, Madame’s children, Madame, Monsieur, and Mademoiselle. The children treat her badly, bully her and she is given too much work. She slowly becomes withdrawn and loses her joy with confusion about her purpose in France, having to clean, cook and take care of the children, which she never expected as it contrasts with her life in Senegal.
Diouana has received a letter from her mother twice and she never got to write her back because Madame didn’t help her write the way she promised. She slowly realizes that her madame’s kindness is nothing but self-seeking. She worked for “important white people” in Dakar but she is treated as a mere servant, a useful object who does all the jobs in the house in France.
She grows withdrawn, and depressed thinking about her life in the house. She is bullied, treated unkindly by Madame and Mademoiselle, made to do all the jobs in the house, and used like a trophy by being labeled with racist comments at parties. Mademoiselle and Madame’s rude behavior gives her the last push. She goes upstairs to the bathroom and is later found dead. The investigators conclude it was suicide and close the case.
Black Girl | Analysis
The story moves back and forth between the past and present, primarily focusing on an African girl, Diouana. She is found dead in her mistress’s house. The officer cross-question Madame and Mademoiselle Dubois. Diouana was brought from Africa in April. The officers suspect the cause of Diouana’s death is suicide. The reporters are impatient to have something on the death but her life doesn’t have any value being black which reflects racism.
The story moves back to the past when Madame Pouchet visited Africa at her Villa. Diouana worked in the villas scattered in Dakar. Diouana happily made long journeys to work without any complaints. Diouana worked as a laundress for Madame and was very happy when she heard Madame will be taking her to France and nothing seemed beautiful to her anymore. She dreamt of visiting France, to explore its beauty, the joy that everyone talked about, and was even ready to request Madame in case she changed her mind. Diouana dreamt of making money and buying everything for her family and dreamt of the freedom to go wherever she wished to without having to work so hard. Madame had gone to France for three of her vacations with her children and husband but with her duties as a wife and mother, she hardly had any. She somehow convinced her husband to come back to Africa. After having been through the bad maids she put an ad in the newspaper and selected Diouana among the hundred. She was very happy to leave. Tive Correa’s words for Diouana show the foreshadowing of the upcoming danger. He tries to tell her how people confuse staying in France with being servants in France. His saying “Darkness pursues the moth” shows how people run after glory and wealth.
Her family hugs her and they part ways. Diouana’s face was glowing with happiness and the high hopes that she had for her future. She sets foot in France after a week-long journey and feels Africa to be a slum in comparison to France, its food and beauty. Her love for the place changed within months. In the third month, her character goes through a transformation, where she is no more jolly and full of life but rather has lost attention to details. She is depressed and exhausted which is evident from her physical features, for instance, her hollow eyes. She has to overwork as she takes care of the children, who bully her calling her “black girl” and commenting on her skin. Her mental health begins to deteriorate with the children harassing her. The bullying makes her question her identity and makes her feel lonely within the crowd. Her dreams slowly decay with her life in Madame’s house.
The concept of slavery is shown through her overworking, cooking, babysitting, laundry ironing and even taking care of the guests who visit the house. Diouana realizes France isn’t the paradise that she hoped and dreamt of. She considers the people she worked for to be monsters for the way she is treated and harassed. She is dragged from villa to villa to work, cook, and please Madame’s guests.
She starts realizing her purpose in France. She wanted to explore the place, the food, the beauty, and the people. She wanted to be free. But she realizes France is a shackle for her. She is shackled to slavery, her independence bought with three thousand francs a month. Madame pretends to be kind to her only for her interests, to have her work done. Madame’s attentiveness is only to trap her in the place. The pride she took for working for white people now made her loathe the whole idea of being in the place. She withdraws herself and limits herself to agree on doing the chores and sleeping like a “log” at night. She devotedly does all the chores, and her ungrateful mistresses’ complaints push her away more and more. She ruins her relationship with her employers and they limit their conversation to that of business.
Her broken French makes her more insecure. She feels lonely in the house and doesn’t even take her food properly. The food she devoured when she first arrived in France made her sick to the stomach now. She realizes she is used like a machine to do all the household chores and used as a novelty like a “trophy” on display. She realizes her identity is not hers anymore, but her identity is the right of the people she works for. She is an outsider who is stuck among the monsters. She feels angry that she dreamt of this place, to live in such a decayed place, and never realized that she was being persuaded to work like a slave.
With all the work she was provided with, with all the bullying and harassment and being treated as an outsider, Madame blaming her as a liar gave her the last push and hence she killed herself.
Tive Correa had predicted her downfall and even tried to warn her, in the end, she realized he was right. The young girl who came to France with dreams cursed herself for moving out of her native place. She considered Africa to be garbage compared to France, but Africa seemed beautiful, and bushy as compared to France who now looked like “dead shrubs” to her. She idolized France as a dreamy place but soon realized the idea of France for her is confined to the four walls of the villa and its people.
Black Girl | Themes
Colonialism – This story explores how black people are exploited due to poor economic conditions resulting from colonialism. The native people lack opportunities and fortune in their homeland, thus they have to leave their homeland and try their luck in a foreign country. Due to a lack of money and education and being constantly subjected to racism, people like Diouana suffer from an inferiority complex that destroys their dignity. The consequences of illiteracy are more prominent in this story, class division can be seen, and people like Diouana have to settle for a job as a servant. They are humiliated and treated inferiorly due to their low class.
Diouana also lacks knowledge about her culture and doesn’t understand the significance of some things. She has an ideal vision of France and dreams that it would be paradise living there but after arriving in France her illusion breaks. Under colonialism’s influence, the native people forget their own culture’s significance and idolize the lives of white people. They dream of the luxuries that upper-class people enjoy but when they try to achieve that dream they are cruelly reminded of their unfortunate condition.
Racism – Diouana suffers harshly due to racism. When living in Senegal she is surrounded by her people and gets to enjoy her freedom. However, in France she is alone, surrounded by white people. She is alienated and treated as an outcast due to her low status. She is not even allowed to go outside, constantly confined to her role as a servant. She faces oppression as she is stripped of her identity and only recognized by everyone as the maid.
Madame treats her unkindly and doesn’t recognize her as a human being. Previously Diouana idolized the lives of white people and tried to mimic their appearance, she had big dreams about her life in France. But in France, they treat her like a novelty, as if she is some exotic animal on display. All this creates a lot of mental strain on Diouana. This shows how racism constantly degrades the lives of colonized people; colonizers do not allow them to have any aspirations and all their dreams are crushed due to people’s prejudices. Madame could have treated Diouana more kindly, and allowing her some freedom would not have affected Madame’s life but she didn’t because she did not view a black girl as human as her.
Black Girl | Characters
Diouana is a jolly woman who lives her life to the fullest. She is happy in her native place but dreams of visiting France and exploring its beauty of it. She is selected by Madame to work for her for three thousand francs per month while she is working as a laundress. She takes pride in working for white people and idolizes France to be a paradise and dreams of exploring the place. But her dreams are shattered when she realizes she is being used as a servant and made to do all the household chores. She suffers from depression and an inferiority complex when she is bullied for her skin color, and harassed for belonging to Africa.