Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, perceives American racism through an entirely new lens, one I had never looked through before. My generic notions of racism have always been filtered through my own whiteness, and through the eyes and experiences of American Blacks. From history and literature, I learned about the Civil War. I came of age in the 1960s. Today, I care about Black Lives Matter, and I listen with interest when television pundits like Melissa Harris-Perry and Eugene Robinson and Joy Reid and Jonathan Capehart reveal their personal experiences and talk with contemporaries who have suffered at the hands of the police. But I’ve never even remotely thought about how a black person from another country might interpret Blackness in America. Americanah left my mind reeling.
Ifemelu, the protagonist, is a young Nigerian woman. Smart, well-educated, self-possessed, she comes to the United States to continue her schooling. What she learns, confounds her. As she comments several times in the novel, she never before identified herself in terms of “blackness,” never really knew what blackness might be until she tried to find part-time work in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, until she lived in Baltimore and Boston, until she enjoyed a fellowship at Princeton, and until she found financial success as a blogger, blogging about black in America. Even then, she finds herself endlessly surprised.
“Americanah” is a somewhat pejorative word used to describe a Nigerian who has been changed by a visit to the United States. Ifemelu turns into an Americanah, tries not to turn into an Americanah, blogs about her suspension between two alternating states of mind. Her blog, to me, was eye-opening and absolutely fascinating. Her experiences, totally outside my purview, come at the reader intellectually, emotionally, and politically. But Ifemelu doesn’t just act on her own. Her circle of friends, acquaintances, and lovers narrows and widens throughout Americanah. So the reader learns about childhood, high school, and college in Nigeria, then revisits similar locales in America. Many of Ifemelu’s female friends are Americanah, too, with varying degrees of hostility and acceptance.
Likewise, the men in her life are important to Ifemelu’s perceptions of herself and of her world. Her childhood sweetheart, Obinze, ventures to London, where his illegal status disrupts his life in disastrous ways. Ifemelu’s two American lovers, one blonde and wealthy and self-assured, the other an up-and-coming young black professor at Harvard, are polar opposites. Both these Americans elicit important responses regarding Ifemelu’s emotional growth and her intellectual leanings. Meanwhile, Nigerian Obinze lurks in the background of Ifemelu’s mind.
Americanah opens with Ifemelu’s decision to leave America and return to Nigeria, thirteen years after leaving her native land. On a whim, she contacts Obinze, now married, and a very wealthy man. Will she go home to Lagos? Will she see Obinze again? These are the questions that haunt the pages of Americanah, which largely recount Ifemelu’s Americanah life and bring her into the present only in the final chapters. No grand epiphany, simply the narration of a young woman irrevocably altered.
I promise that no one who reads this novel will ever think of blackness in quite the same way again. Mulling over Ifemelu’s observations in my mind, I can’t help but wonder how a black reader might react. Not as I have, for sure, but in a powerful way nonetheless. Other readers agree with my enthusiasm, for Americanah was termed one of the NY Times Ten Best Books of 2013 and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Strong recommendations from us all. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half a Yellow Sun; Purple Hibiscus; We Should All be Feminists; The Thing Around Your Neck; One World.