I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this summer. It would’ve fit into this syllabus really well if not quite so long and quarters not quite so fast. Comparable to We Need New Names as they are both novels about increasingly globalized African countries of people who aspire to emigrate to America and Europe, Americanah presents immigration under very different circumstances and thus, the novel explores different issues of race and displaced populations.
The novel centers on Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who came to America for college and now writes a blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and holds a fellowship at Princeton. These two facts alone speak to the perspective from which Adichie addresses race through her characters.
The story has a narrative arc that follows Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend, Obinze, from Nigeria to America and London, respectively, and back to Lagos. The two immigrants are products of the new “social practice of imagination” that Appadurai defines– they are not driven from their homeland by famine, war, or even poverty, rather, they go to pursue higher education and lucrative jobs (not without struggle, of course). As a part of this new immigrant class, Ifemelu even has trouble finding work that she is not highly overqualified for; there is an African immigrant narrative that Americans expect her to fit into.
This fluid movement between Nigeria and more developed countries and back again is a phenomenon they have grown up with– Nigerians even have a name for those who return with their newfound wealth and signifiers of status– “Americanahs.” The Nigeria Adichi portrays in one greatly affected by those who return to develop the country and exist as status symbols aligned with the West that infect the entire culture.
Ifemelu’s experience in America is marked by a desire to remain authentic as a Nigerian American within a society that indistinctly categorizes her as “black” even as she is realizing her “blackness” for the first time. Through Ifemelu’s critical gaze, we are able to penetrate the black/white binary and explore the particular way race exists and is treated in America. Adichie breaks down the “politically correct” language used to describe blackness, from the distinction between American Africans and African Americans, to the descriptions of skin tones ranging from “gingerbread” to “caramel,” to the exposure of the fear behind a rich, white woman calling every black woman she sees “beautiful.”
Many of Adichie’s scenes take a satirical, even comical, tone towards the self-satisfaction of the intellectual, upper-middle class of 20 and 30 somethings in “post-racial” America. However, she is critical of all race relations– those between Nigerians and “Americanahs,” black immigrants toward African Americans, Caribbean immigrants toward Nigerians– a criticism exercised through her use of settings ranging from Princeton to London to Laos to a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey where she combats the idea of a Pan-African kinship.
Adichie’s novel is a penetrating, disrupting study of race in a world where America does not only exist as a country, but also as a force. It is impossible to read this story– to exist behind Ifemelu’s eyes– without being disturbed by what is illuminated in everyday experience.