The Red Couch: Americanah Discussion

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To learn more about Americanah, read the introductory post.

“Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Otherwise you will get no sympathy.” —To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby (274)

By DL Mayfield | Twitter: @d_l_mayfield

BookClub-DL

The first thought I had while reading Americanah was so embarrassing, I debated on whether or not I should type it out here. But it speaks to a larger theme in the book, so I will go ahead and lay bare my hubris, my true reaction as I read about the heroine, the Nigerian born Ifemelu, interacting with other African immigrants in a hair-braiding salon. My first thought was: “Oh yes, I totally get this. I totally understand the African immigrant experience in America”. By the end of the book I was horrified, finding that it wasn’t Ifemelu I ultimately identified with but rather all the nice, classist, racist white people that she continually interacted with. I didn’t want to see myself there, so I chose not to.

However, when I went back for a second reading, there I was. When I went back again to the beginning, to the hair salon (which, in of itself, is a perfect metaphor for Chimananda Adiche to introduce the topics of race (African, African-American, White) and otherness and shifting identities, I found myself.  Kelsey, the white girl who shows up to get her hair braided in cornrows, dipping in to another world for an exotic experience. Her “aggressive friendliness” her constant questions, her insistence on her own version of truth (“But you couldn’t even have a business in your country, right?” She asks the woman doing her hair. “Isn’t wonderful that you get to come to the U.S. And now your kids can have a better life?”).

Adichie tells us that Ifemelu “recognized in Kelsy the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was”. (233) Kelsey goes on to tell Ifemelu that she will be traveling in Africa soon and that she read one book about it which truly made her understand “how modern Africa works. It’s just so honest, the most honest book I’ve read about Africa”. When Ifemelu challenges Kelsey and declares the book to really be about a longing to be European, Kelsey dismisses her with a shrug. Kelsey was fine with her own interpretation of the book; she was fine with the idea that she completely understood Africa.

I could say the same about myself in relation to Americanah; I would like nothing better than to say I completely understand what it means to be Black in America; that I understand the pervasiveness of racism in my country and in my own heart. But I know that I cannot, and Adichie would agree with me. I do not completely understand anything, I only see through a dim veil. For those of us who aren’t outsiders or immigrants, who are firmly entrenched in the status quo, who are intensely interested in not being disturbed out of the comfortable narratives we have built about what reality is—we will never know the pain of each day putting on a “faultless versions of her American self” (232). However, we can ask ourselves to read about it, and believe that it is happening all around us, every day.

Americanah really sizzles in the descriptions of Ifemelu’s inner life, and conversely, the times when she allows herself to think her thoughts aloud (perhaps after a glass of wine or two, or when she finally starts a blog). Her sharp observations read like a eye-watering sermon, directed squarely at readers who are firmly entrenched in opposite worlds. At a party, Ifemelu confronts a woman who declared that in her bi-racial relationship “race was not an issue”. Ifemelu responds, the words tumbling out faster than my slow mind could process them:

“The only reason you say race is not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie . . . we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will think we are overreacting, or we are being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say “Look how far we have come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah”, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it have ever been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we are supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.” (360)

For all the nice liberal readers (myself included), that paragraph is intended to shock. The echos of it come back later, after Ifmelu’s blog (titled Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America) becomes very successful and she is asked to give talks and presentations on race relations in America. After delivering a talk to a group of stone-faced white people (and receiving an angry, all-caps e-mail declaring that WE SHOULD NEVER HAVE LET YOU INTO THE COUNTRY) Ifmelu realizes abruptly that “the point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves” (377) She changes her presentations accordingly—“During her talks she said ‘America has made great progress for which we should be very proud’. In her blog, she wrote ‘racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it’.” (378)

It is that last sentence that has become lodged in my brain, a like a worrying little stone in my shoe I keep checking to make sure is still there. Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it. This is something nobody has ever said to my face, and only now do I start to wonder why that is.

I am grateful to Adichie for writing it out, for me and the myriads of other well-meaning people who so often cling to the myth that we are a part of the solution, simply because a few overtly horrendous injustices have changed. But the truth–and by this I mean actual, Biblical, Truth–is that racism should never have happened. The God we serve is deeply anguished by the artificial and damaging divides we have inflicted on ourselves, and he is actively lamenting the relational losses we accrue as a result. All throughout Americanah I was hearing a prophet’s voice, disguised as a whip-smart Nigerian immigrant. We still need to pray for God’s kingdom to come here on earth. Because this most certainly is not it.

The other story weaving through the novel follows Ifemelu’s first love from Nigeria, Obineze. His path towards his own alienating immigration experience and subsequent settling in Nigeria are interesting, but hardly as compelling as Ifemelu’s clear-headed thoughts on her American life. In the latter half of the novel, when Ifemelu moves back to Nigeria, the entire tone of the novel changes. In some ways, the average western reader is left off the hook, allowed to sink back into the relief at looking at a far-away world (although Adichie’s portrayals of Nigeria are refreshingly normal and free of stereotypes). The ending felt immensely flat to me, hurried and tied up in a bow that was much too neat for my taste. Although perhaps, this too, was a nod from the author. Nice liberal people, after all, like happy endings. Perhaps she wanted us to consider why a false one would leave us wanting more. Perhaps she wanted us to go back and re-read the book, and see our reflections in the darkest mirrors.

Questions to Consider:

  • How much does your own race affect your experience of reading Americanah? Does race affect the reader’s ability to relate to or emphasize with the characters?
  • Examples of American political correctness abound in this novel, such as the clothing shop clerk who won’t say, “Was it the black girl or the white girl?” because that would be considered a racist way to identify people. Why does Ifemelu find it curious? Do you think these attitudes differ across the United States?
  • Kimberly, the white woman who employs Ifemelu as a nanny, seems to exemplify the white liberal guilt many Americans feel in relation to Africa and Africans. How did you respond to this character and her relationship with Ifemelu?
  • Is hair a useful way of examining race and culture?
  • Money and relationships are intertwined in various ways, whether characters use these things to get ahead or chase after the possibility. What did you think of these dynamics and the shifting sense of power and dependence they create?
  • Why is Ifemelu’s blog so successful? What did you think of her blog posts? Can you think of any blogs that are similar to hers?
  • What did you think about Obinze and Ifemelu’s relationship? What did you think about the choices that brought them together and kept them apart over the years?
  • Why is it important to have the perspective of an African writer on race in America? Does reading the story make you more alert to race, and to the cultural identifications within races and mixed races?

*Some questions suggested by or adapted from the Random House Reader’s Guide

Reminder:

Our August book is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Come back Wednesday, August 6  for the introduction to the book. The discussion, led by guest poster Shawn Smucker, will be Wednesday, August 27.

For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

* Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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About D.L. Mayfield:

danielle_almostDoneD.L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order among the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside-down kingdom. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Geez, Curator, and Conspire! among others. You can find her on Twitter at @d_l_mayfield or on her blog: http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com

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  • AlissaBC

    This was such a good discussion of the themes found in the book, DL. I was captivated by many of the same things. I especially found Ifemelu’s relationship with Kimberly interesting. I expected Ifemelu to have disdain for Kimberly’s privilege and personality, her way of apologizing for everything (which I definitely identified with) and trying to make everyone comfortable. But Ifemelu actually expressed a lot of empathy and understanding towards Kimberly. Through Ifemelu’s eyes, I had a gentler reaction to Kimberly than I might have had on my own.
    It was so interesting to experience American culture, especially as it relates to race, through Ifemelu because as a foreigner she notices things that many of us are completely accustomed to, but as a black person she is forced into experiencing them as well. She doesn’t get to make observations from afar as a white foreigner might be able to. She is personally affected by the attitudes on race in America, whether that be through racism or liberal ideologies that are imposed on her, and has to decide how to respond and develop her own opinion. Such an eye-opening read. Thanks for recommending it! I’m glad I had an excuse to put it at the top of my list.

    • “She is personally affected by the attitudes on race in America, whether
      that be through racism or liberal ideologies that are imposed on her,
      and has to decide how to respond and develop her own opinion.”
      YES. I thought this was why her blog had the impact it did.

    • I SO agree about Kimberly. In the end, I was so glad Ifemelu was so empathetic to her. Right-on analysis.

  • What a beautiful analysis! You made me want to reread the book but with a more critical eye. I agree that the ending was neat and tidy, though I found her struggles with returning to Nigeria the part that most captured me. Thanks for this discussion – it remains one of my favorite books of this year and I think I’ll include a link to this when I recommend it! 🙂

    • So glad Americanah is one of your favorite books of this year! I, too, was most captivated by her struggles with returning to Nigeria. It made me think about the ways we are changed by place and where we call home and how we are always inherently different if and when we return.

    • I think I will have to read it again and give the Nigeria bits the due that they deserve. My breath was knocked out of me by how skillfully she skewered American racism!

  • Saskia Wishart

    For me, it was interesting to see the differences in Ifemelu’s experiences in America vs Obinze’s experiences in the UK… Racism (and classism) take on different forms in different societies.

    In Europe, racism is often packaged in different words or attitudes. Sometimes we need an outside observer to help us see what attitudes we have become adjusted to. It is horrifying when you realise parts of your own strongly held views and opinions have their roots in racism. I lived for a while in an immigrant neighbourhood where being white was a minority. Friends rarely came to visit my house as it felt sooo far away (20min by metro is far in Amsterdam!) and I thought of that time while I reading about Obinze’s experience travelling by train in England as he commented on the many different African nationalities filling the seats the closer to home he got. Subtle ways we live in a divided society, sometimes something as simple as distance by train helps us keep barriers in place. Love what D.L. Mayfield so eloquently points out “The God we serve is deeply anguished by the artificial and damaging divides we have inflicted on ourselves, and he is actively lamenting the relational losses we accrue as a result”. Reading Americanah has definitely challenged me in how I speak and think and for that I am so grateful. Adichie is so talented, she pulled at much to be reflected on through her writing. I would be curious to hear from some of my other friends in Europe what their thoughts are on this book… must pass it on.

    • Great insights, Saskia! I would be curious to hear from Europeans as well.

    • So interesting. I did find the London bits fascinating, but the stuff that takes place in America was much more visceral for me. Let me know what your European friends say!

  • This is such a lovely book about unlovely things. The insights into people’s inner life and thoughts was amazing. It made me think it must be almost painful to understand people’s real selves that deeply. I felt though as a middle class white person a sense of helplessness. It seems I cannot understand, I cannot sympathize, and I cannot have any impact even in a small way (what other way could there be for me?) in this gridlock of racism. Maybe Adichie’s intent was to reject and put in their place only those who minimize the issues of which she speaks. But I found myself thinking I would be terrified to have a conversation with her. Maybe my good intentions are that hopeless. This book has given me a lot to think about, and great delight in the beauty of the writing.

    • I feel a bit of that paralysis that you speak of, but I truly do feel like it comes out of a place of deep sadness. We are paralyzed by the fact that God’s kingdom is not here, not fully, in so many painful ways. But you are right–it fundamentally is about some very unlovely things.

  • Sandy Hay

    Race was highlighted throughout my entire childhood. I am a white American female who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, near Philadelphia. I was in 3rd grade when American schools were first integrated. Beverly Fortune came to my third grade class and she came to my birthday party 🙂 My town was a steel town so half my graduating class was white and half was black. In 1968 I student taught in Philadelphia in an all black elementary school with an integrated faculty. In the middle of that Martin Luther King was assassinated. I think race affects us in America all the time, and we don’t have the foggiest idea it is. Political correctness …enough said. Kimberly is the type of character who drives me crazy, although she is a segment of America and must be in this book. I want more of the blog. This blog helped me look at myself, white American female, and really think for probably the first time in my life what I’ve gotten just because I’m white. A sad realization but one that gives me hope. Obinze and Ifemelu developed a relationship that was safe. They knew each other like no other. They could just be, no pretending. I think in the end that’s what brought them back together, even though they had to know this would not be a happily ever after story.

    • “the blog helped me look at myself” yes, exactly. I felt the same way. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  • I always tend to say that “I understand the immigrant experience because I was one.” But the truth is, I don’t. Sure, I was a “stranger” in Thailand for seven years, but first of all, I was white, and thus, I was beloved. Skin color is an issue there, as well, even though outsiders might say “everyone looks the same.” But the truth is that the lighter-skinned, Thai/Chinese mixed people had a higher status then darker-skinned rural people there. I was made fun of occasionally for my accent or weird ways, and I was pointed at sometimes, but overall, I was accepted. Also, I was not struggling to make money or find a job, and neither were my parents. Their church was paying them a monthly salary to live in Thailand. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough, which is more than most immigrants experience. Americanah instantly bolted me out of my comfort zone, reminding me that racism and prejudice are real, and that we all (including me) have untold and maybe unrecognized prejudices. “Of all their tribalisms, Americans are most uncomfortable with race,” Ifemelu wrote in a blog post. Even though we are post-slavery and post-civil rights era, there is still so much discomfort there. I try to speak for immigrants and minorities, but I always wonder: who am I to speak for them? I am one of the ones who came out on top, because I am white and educated, and it is easy for me to shrink back into my comfortable understanding of things and forget about stories like Ifemelu’s and her aunt and cousin’s and Obineze’s. This book made me extremely uncomfortable and painfully self-aware, but I firmly believe it is a book I needed to read (and reread often.) I can only hope that somehow it will help me to continue to affirm the humanity of others and be aware of my own hidden privileges and prejudices.

    • Thank you so much for this. I identify SO much with what you said. I often refer to myself as an outsider. I really am starting to think that diving into honest discussions about race relations in America will unlock the Holy Spirit in my life. White supremacy is still very much alive and well, even (especially) in my own heart. Without getting shocked out of my ways of thinking/being, I would never have to confront this truth.

  • pastordt

    I missed this post somehow – but am so glad Sarah featured it in this month’s Zine! Wow, D.L. what a great discussion post. Now I want to read the book!

  • Chris

    Coming to the discussion late, sorry. I liked, but didn’t love this book. I appreciated the way it challenged my thinking about race and immigration issues…still chewing on some of these. I did not particularly like Ifemelu, which made the book slow going for me. I grew tired of her self-absorption and seeming bewilderment over her foolish choices (mainly over the men in here life). I did love her relationship with Dike. I think I even preferred Obinze to Ifemelu. Glad I read the book, but can’t imagine trying to reread it.