Americanah: The Complexity of Identity

Photo provided by Deqa Ahmed.

Photo provided by Deqa Ahmed.

By Deqa Ahmed

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an author and a self-proclaimed feminist. You may know her from Beyoncé’s ***Flawless, where her 2012 “we should all be feminists” speech was sampled.

Adichie’s third novel Americanah is weaved with discussions of race, class, immigration and identity. Americanah is told primarily from the perspective of Ifemelu, in a flashback format from a hair salon in the present, to significant points in her past. While this novel does provide an endearing love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, love is not the central focus of the story.

Ifemelu and Obinze meet in high school in Nigeria, falling in love almost immediately. Around this time Nigeria is under military rule and their future prospects are bleak. Obinze is enamoured by all facets of American culture, particularly literature. Due to the military rule, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to pursue an education in the states, leaving Obinze behind. Obinze, unable to be granted a visa to study in the States eventually ends up in London, struggling to get a fake social security number so he can find work. Ifemelu is facing a similar struggle, unable to find a job to sustain herself in America. At this point, the novel begins to delve into the meaty discussions described above.

As soon as Ifemelu arrives in America, she is confronted with the reality of being a new immigrant to a foreign country. Although she comes from a middle class family, her peers suddenly perceive her as being unintelligent and incapable of speaking English. A poignant example presents itself when Ifemelu goes to school on the first day to register. Cristina Tomas at the registration desk speaks to her extremely slowly. Unknowingly, Ifemelu assumed Cristina was suffering from an illness, causing her to speak so slowly. She soon realizes Cristina was simply attempting to accommodate her speech.

“…Cristina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy limbed and drooling…. Ifemelu shrank. In that strained, still second where her eyes met Cristina Tomas’ before she took the forms, she shrank. She shrank like a dried leaf. She had spoken English all her life, led the debating society in secondary school, and always thought the American twang inchoate; she should not have cowered and shrunk, but she did. And in the following weeks, as autumn’s coolness descended, she began to practice an American accent.”

 Ifemelu is subsequently introduced to the labels deeply entrenched within America’s historical makeup. She is introduced to the intricacies present within these labels, such as the differences between ‘African-Americans’ (those descended from slaves) and ‘American-Africans’ who have recently immigrated to America.

As Ifemelu settles into herself in America, she becomes unapologetic and refuses to dilute her identity. She is introspective and her self-reflections provide a necessary representation of what it truly means to be black in America.

She starts a blog titled ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non—American Black”. Her blog details her experiences as a ‘Non-American Black’, among these being the politicized issue of black hair. Ifemelu discusses the expectations faced by black women to straighten or chemically relax their hair, in order to make others feel more comfortable. Experiencing this pressure, Ifemelu chemically relaxed her hair in order to secure a job.

Near the end of the book, the past fades into the present and Ifemelu makes the decision to return to Nigeria. She is reunited with Obinze, who now has a wife and a child.

Through Ifemelu, Adichie was able to disentangle the complicated history of race in America. Adichie provides a translation comprehensible to the general population, whose own identities may have prevented them from comprehending the experiences of non-whites.

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