#1000BlackGirlBooks: Americanah

First of all, I’m sorry about the late post. I was incredibly busy working on my finals, but I’m happily on my winter break right now!

The other reason this post is late is because…well, it’s kind of a mess. I’ve written, edited, and re-written, but Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a complex work. I don’t feel qualified to write a nuanced, in-depth discussion about this novel, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I started reading #1000BlackGirl books to learn, and the experience has varied so far. I’ve gotten way more out of The Hate U Give and The Color Purple than NOLA Gals and Sound. So when I read the description of a young Nigerian woman going to America to continue her education, and learning what it means to be Black in America, I was here for it.

The first thing I learned from this book is that I don’t know shit about Nigeria.

I only knew very vague facts about Nigeria before I started this book – something about tribes and a military government, and that it was densely populated – and not much else. When one of the characters, Aunty Uju, begins and affair with someone known only as “The General”, I decided it was time to learn a little bit more about the country. I don’t have a ton of free time anymore, but I do have enough time for a couple Wikipedia articles, and read through some about Nigeria’s political history.

This was a new experience for me. I’ve done research on things I’ve read about in stories because they piqued my interest, but I’d never done research to better understand the context and setting of a novel. Even after I did, I still felt like there was a lot for me to learn. But that’s kind of how all of  Americanah made me feel.

Americanah follows Ifemelu and Obinze, a young Nigerian couple. When constant strikes impede their university education, Ifemelu decides to go to America to complete her Bachelor’s degree. Later, Obinze tries to move to America as well, but is denied a visa in the aftermath of 9/11. Instead, he goes to London, hoping to start a new life and someday make it to the United States.

This book covers so much that I’m not sure I’ll be able to touch on everything here. t also took me a year to read this book, grad school frequently halting my progress. There’s things in the beginning that I’ve probably forgotten, or things that I meant to take notes on and didn’t. It chronicles the immigrant experience for both these characters, while Ifemelu – and her blog – discuss race in America.

In trying to plan this blog post, I felt very much out of my depth. I have very few experiences in common with Ifemelu and Obinze. I’ve never had to use another person’s social security number to get a job, have never left my home country for reasons other than vacation, and I can’t say that I have any real idea what it means to be a Black person in America, or in England. I know what it means to be a well-meaning White person, like Kimberley, one of Ifemelu’s employers. Trying my best to be inclusive and empathetic, while knowing that I will never truly “get it”. I’m on the outside, looking in, and hoping I’m doing more good than harm.

I suppose I’ll start at the first thing in the book that struck me: a realization of my White privilege in a way that I’d never thought of before. Near the beginning, Ifemelu goes to get her hair braided, and the hair dresser tells her the process will take six hours. Six hours?! You’d need to take a day off work to get your hair done! I sat in a salon chair for three hours a couple times, and I hated it. It looked nice when I was done, but three hours of making uncomfortable small talk was torturous. I can’t imagine was six hours of that would be like.

One chapter in the book is actually dedicated to Ifemelu’s hair. As she starts searching for jobs in America, she uses relaxers to make her natural hair more acceptable to White interviewers. After she gets a job, she wonders if she would have been hired if she’d worn her natural hair. Ifemelu’s immigrant aunt, Aunty Uju, also gets rid of her braids and relaxes her hair so her patients take her more seriously. The relaxers burn Ifemelu’s scalp and she eventually forgoes it, joining online communities for natural hair, and wearing her own natural hair as well.

This becomes one of the main themes of the book: Ifemelu’s identity as a Black woman, juxtaposed (and sometimes in conflict with) her identity as an American. For example, she practices an American accent, until someone compliments her on not sounding African, after which she switches back to her Nigerian accent.

I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be Antiracist as I work on this post. In it, he writes about “dueling consciousness”, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois ideas of “double consciousness”.

They joined other Black people trying to fit into that White space while still trying to be themselves and save their people. They were not wearing a mask as much as splitting into two minds.

The conceptual duple reflected what W.E.B. Du Bois idelibly voiced in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,’ Du Bois wrote. He would neither ‘Africanize America’ nor ‘bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism’. Du Bois wished ‘to be both a Negro and an American.’ Du Bois wished to inhabit opposing constructs. To be American is to be White. To be White is not be a Negro.

Kendi, I. X. (2019) How to be an Anti-Racist, p. 28

Ifemelu’s story is largely built around this dual consciousness. So many of her experiences in America are affected by her skin color, even as Americans around her say they don’t see race. A perfect and all too real example is when Ifemelu goes shopping with her friend Ginika, shortly after Ifemelu arrives in America. When buying clothes, they get helped out a sales associate, but can’t remember her name when asked by the cashier. The cashier asks what color the employee’s hair was, but it doesn’t help, since they both employees had the same hair color. After they leave, Ifemelu asks why the cashier didn’t just ask if it was the Black girl or White girl who helped them. Ginika laughs, and says in America, people pretend race isn’t real.

This is something I have done. Once at work I was trying to point out a customer to my boss, struggling to remember what she was wearing. After he found the customer, he asked me, “Why didn’t you just say she’s the only Black person here?” It had never occurred to me, even if it would have made finding the person easier. Why is it so hard to say, “She’s Black/Latinx/White/Asian” and use race as a neutral descriptor?

Here’s the thing: I’m uncomfortable doing that, and many White people I know are as well. It’s hard for me to say why that is. Part of it, for me, was because I spent most of my life living in majority White cities, where diversity was more of a vague idea than something I had to think about every day. I have this notion that describing someone by their race, no matter the reason, is inherently racist.

And while I don’t know if that’s “okay” or not, as I reflect more on current events, I’ve come to realize that discomfort is a problem. If we’re going to make any progress towards justice and tearing down racist systems, we have to be able to have discussions about race. Just as you can’t have a conversation if the other person isn’t listening, you can’t have a conversation if the other person is too afraid of being wrong or feeling uncomfortable to talk.

Then there’s Kimberly, one of Ifemelu’s first employers in America. When I wondered before what benevolent racism looks like, I now understand that it looks like Kimberly. Kimberly dotes on Ifemelu not only because she’s a good nanny, but because she’s Nigerian. She shows Ifemelu souvenirs she’s collected from second- and third-world countries, saying things like, “the poorest people we saw were also the happiest.” It sounds so patronizing, especially when you consider how Ifemelu’s family often struggled to pay rent. Ifemelu was definitely not happier for her poverty. Kimberly is a tourist in the cultures of others, but sees it only at a surface level, rather than engaging with it in a deeper, more meaningful way.

If I’m being totally honest, I’m guilty of this, too. I was very skeptical when I first read about cultural appropriation, because I didn’t want someone telling me the way I was enjoying things wasn’t right. I got a little defensive. I had to learn and reflect, and become more aware of my actions and the things I say. For example, I used to love the misapproprated phrase “spirit animal”. It was a fun, jokey thing for me, and I didn’t want to give it up. Whenever I said that something was my “spirit animal”, I was ignoring and disrespecting Indigenous cultures. I’ve since learned better and stopped doing that, and I try to be aware of cultures not my own. I’m going to keep making mistakes, and I’ll keep getting things wrong until I know better. The best I can do right now is keep learning, and to change my ways based on what I’ve read and experienced.

And, as I’m now seeking out anti-racist reading material, as above, some of it has been hard for me to take. There are things that I’ve read in Kendi’s aforementioned book that I’ve initially taken issue with or had a hard time getting behind. It’s only by reminding myself to keep an open mind and that I have no place telling a Black author what’s racist and what isn’t. I need to shut up, listen, learn, and grow.

I feel like this post is kind of a mess, and there’s so much in Americanah that I won’t be able to cover the whole novel properly. But before I finish up here, I think I need to talk about Ifemelu’s American boyfriends.

Her first is Curt, one of Kimberly’s relatives. Ifemelu is hesitant about dating him at first, and Curt tells others that it was because she didn’t want to date a White person. This isn’t true; she just wasn’t sure about dating a relative of her employer. There’s a couple ways I interpreted this. The first is that Curt couldn’t believe Ifemelu wouldn’t want to date him, and had to make the excuse that it was about race. Or, by saying that he’s the one who doesn’t care about race, he appears to be more progressive and open-minded. Of course, if he really doesn’t care about race, then why bring it up? Curt is using his relationship with Ifemelu to virtue signal, so it’s not a huge surprise that their relationship doesn’t last.

The next is Blaine, a Black university professor and activist. Though he and Ifemelu are both intelligent, passionate people with similar interests, they have several conflicts in their relationship. A large part of this is because Blaine tries to stifle or change Ifemelu’s voice throughout their relationship. This is most apparent when it comes to her blog. By this point in the novel, Ifemelu makes her entire living on her blog. Blaine constantly badgers her to make it more professional or academic, citing the responsibility she has due to her high levels of readership. She resents this, and the pressure Blaine puts on her.

Blaine’s sister, Shana, is another hurdle to overcome. In a book with a lot of asshole characters, Shana is easily the most self-centered. Along with that, she’s jealous of Ifemelu for getting so much of her brother’s attention. She also belittles Ifemelu’s experiences in America, and says that she can’t fully participate in discussions about race in the United States, because she isn’t American.

There is so much going on in this book that I can really only cover a little bit, and these are some of the things that stuck out to me. In some ways, I feel like this post is a good representation of where I’m at right now, in trying to learn more about race and be better than I am. I’m scratching the surface, and I’m more in tune with the obvious stuff that’s easy to notice and understand. There’s an ocean of information to swim in, and I’m still splashing in the shallow end. I’m glad that I have books like this to help open my eyes, and teach me how to swim in the deep end. I hope I get there some day.

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