Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. At once powerful and tender, Americanah is a remarkable novel of race, love, and identity by the award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
My Biggest Takeaways
Americanah is one of the most thematically comprehensive books I’ve read in a while, in that it deals with a variety of topics related to race, immigration, and America/the West. I could probably write a lengthy dissertation on all of the topics that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 🇳🇬 🇳🇬 🇳🇬 discusses through this novel if I wanted to, but instead, I figured I’d briefly focus on the ones that really stuck out to me the most, as well as the main characters that helped bring those ideas to life.
Ifemelu: What It Means to be “Black” & Hair as a Metaphor for Race
The primary protagonist of the novel, Ifemelu states that she “only became Black when I came to America.” It is this quote that sums up one of the biggest themes of the novel: the constancy of race in America. Emigrating from Nigeria, a racially homogenous country, Ifemelu had little to any conception of race, but during her time in America, she is constantly reminded of her Blackness, often in overt ways. We see this in Laura’s performative “wokeness” every time she’s around Ifemelu, as well as Curt’s exoticizing of Ifemelu. Ife starts a blog to catalog her observations about the way Americans treat Black people, as well as examine the differences in the experiences of Black Americans and Black non-Americans.
It is also in America that Ifemelu begins to understand the significance of Black hair. Aunty Uju introduces Ifemelu to the concept of relaxing hair to appear more “professional” to white Americans; Ifemelu didn’t realize that America had politicized Black women’s hair so much. It is through the object of hair that Ifemelu further understands America’s race problem, as she observes the social stratification that is tied directly to Black hair — how Black women are judged based on how closely their hair approximates “whiteness.” Ifemelu even contends that Barack Obama would not have won the 2008 presidential election had his wife, Michelle Obama, appeared alongside him in her natural hair. Adichie uses this metaphor to make very interesting observations about the lengths that Black people in the West feel they need to diminish themselves just to be “accepted” by white people.
Obinze: The Harsh Realities of the Immigrant Experience
Wanting to follow Ifemelu to the U.S., Obinze encounters difficulty finding entry into the country after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He ends up accompanying his mother to London on a short-term visa, which he overstays. We see how far Obinze will go just to survive and have even a small chance of making what he still perceives to be a “better” life for himself in the West. From cleaning toilets, to borrowing people’s identity, to paying for a green card marriage that is ultimately disrupted by the feds. Obinze goes to great, not-always-legal lengths to stay in London and he pays the price, as he is extorted by the marriage organizers and the person who lent Obinze his identity, and is ultimately deported. When he is arrested on his “wedding day,” he concedes to return to Nigeria without a fight, probably thinking that it isn’t worth it to try and stay just to work odd jobs and live in constant fear.
Ifemelu and Aunty Uju also experience difficulty surviving early on in America. Aunty Uju has to work multiple jobs to take care of her and Dike, which affects her performance on her medical exams. Ifemelu, like Obinze, has to borrow another person’s identity just to apply for jobs, which she barely finds. She barely has enough money to scrape together to pay for her rent, which leads her to compromise herself in certain ways just to get money. Adichie makes it painfully clear to the reader the kind of suffering that many immigrants, regardless of legal status, go through in their new countries — a direct contradiction to the “freeloader” narrative that seems to float around in regards to immigrants.
Aunty Uju: Self-Denial & Assimilation
Aunty Uju’s story is that of an immigrant’s struggle to assimilate. Uju, who is Ifemelu’s aunt and Dike’s mother, personifies the ways in which Black immigrants/Black Americans “subdue” themselves in order to seem more “Americanized.” She relaxes her hair to appear more “professional,” she hides her Nigerian accent to seem more American, and she downplays her and her son Dike’s Black identity (there’s a part in the book where she actually forbids Ifemelu from even speaking Igbo around Dike). It’s clear that some of this is a result of what she perceives to be survival tactics; after all, for a good portion of the novel she is a single, immigrant mother struggling to pass her medical exams and make ends meet for her and her son. However, it’s clear that a lot of this is also bred out of insecurity and a sense of dependence.
Dike: Identity Affirmation & its Affect on our Well-Being
Dike is the son of Aunty Uju and Ifemelu’s cousin, whose story arc is relatively sad but does end optimistically. Throughout the story Dike is plagued with perpetual exteriority, which eventually leads to depression and a near-tragedy. He is given little information from his mother about his father, who died when he was a baby, so he thinks that he has an unloving father who abandoned him. On top of that, Uju does little to help him embrace his Blackness/Nigerian heritage, going so far as to tell him that he’s not Black. This leads to Dike struggling with identity issues (something I can relate to as a child), as he can’t reconcile his supposed “non-Blackness” with the fact that his classmates/teachers still view and treat him like he’s Black — an experience that comes with prejudice and stereotyping. However, we see the power of identity affirmation later in the book after Barack Obama wins the 2008 election, when Dike seems to embrace his Blackness and take pride in having a Black president (“I can’t believe it. My president is black like me.”).
Overall, I thought this novel was fantastic. It was incredibly well written; Adichie writes sensational prose. As a Nigerian-American whose the child of two immigrants and whose adolescence was characterized by many elements of the arcs of these characters, I related more to this book than to almost anything I’ve ever read.
(5 stars out of 5)
Did you read this novel? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?