“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)
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
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.
About D.L. Mayfield:
D.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