Americanah is a story of love, culture shock, transition and transformation, discovery and adaptation, and finally, race and hair. The latter two fascinate me because they also seem to be what Adichie really wants to talk about, subtly touches on but often does not return to.
As much as I love Adichie’s work, in Americanah she sets up Ifemelu as a character not to be questioned. It is as if she is given a pass because she is so “observant.” She sees; she writes. Therefore, it’s all good. However, upon reading the actual blog posts, most of which are tongue-in-cheek, laden with sarcasm, some journalistic in presentation, others quips, really, the reader gets a feeling that there is more. Although what we are being given is obviously sparking some much-needed conversation (at least in the blogosphere), the savvy reader can tell she is mainly engaging (physically) with the educated bourgeoisie. Regardless of this key fact, somehow her observations become gold and give credence to her words. She is asked to lead workshops on “Race,” give presentations on Blackness! Really? Adichie ignores Ifemelu’s personal development of race-consciousness even as she delves into race on her blog and in her workshops. Ifemelu’s own analysis of Race is shallow—we don’t get what she was really thinking in particular instances, e.g. how she might be handling a ridiculing of her accent or mispronunciation of her name (inevitable) or questions about running with African elephants and living in huts, etc. I think Adichie plays it safe by presenting Ifemelu with a burnish. Her world seems too sanitized, but perhaps it is so for those African immigrants who come to the bubble of Ivy Leagues on scholarships, student visa-turned-Green Cards, and under-the-table jobs.
This sanitized world Adichie creates also allows African immigrants to opt out of the U.S. Black experience. Ifemelu misses a protest that meant the world to Blaine because she could. She didn’t think “he would mind.” She didn’t think the issue mattered so much to him as to warrant her presence. As an African, she could remove herself from the Black experience at will. What does this mean? That African immigrants can sometimes invoke the choice to “return to the continent” or be safe as Blaine accused her of: “That blog is a game that you don’t really take seriously, it’s like choosing an interesting elective evening class to complete your credits” (346). In a similar way, Ifemelu nags Blaine for tutoring one too many students into academic excellence, not fully comprehending the concept of reaching back for others once you’ve “made it.” Adichie could have used these two incidents as segues into exploring Ifemelu’s own race-consciousness. She chose not to go further.
Ifemelu observes Dike, her nephew, come to his own realization of the social status of the Black Male in America despite his mother’s determined chants that “he is not Black” (i.e. the Black that is African American). In doing so, we get a glimpse into the fissure that exists between American Blacks and African immigrants (perhaps other Diasporic Blacks as well). Despite this hint, Ifemelu does not exert much effort on this issue of Africans disowning “Blackness” and her own personal feelings about this. At best, she tackles it in a flippant blog post which doubles as a to-do list for Non American Blacks (NABs). We don’t get her analysis of how her own identity formation journey has been. What her own interactions with non-academic, non-bourgeoisie Blacks (American or otherwise) are. (For example, does she know/interact with any Blacks that fall into the category of the stereotypes she is fed on TV?)
The “safe Black” aka the African immigrant does not have the history of slavery imprinted on his/her DNA; this NAB is not “angry” because really, what do they have to be angry about? They are being offered a piece of the American Dream, they need only work hard. Which they do, supposedly in contrast to the American Blacks, who though failed by the system, are meant to bear the brunt of this failure. This dynamic is played out in the classrooms and on campus. Each group bands together in isolation from the other, feeding on stereotypes about each other. Ifemelu’s attention is drawn away from this group soon after she arrives on campus and is coopted by the Internationals. Ifemelu does not do her own research, takes the words of her fellow internationals as fact and steers clear of the American Blacks. It is therefore ironic that Ifemelu can successfully write about race when she only interacts with a particular group of people.
Perhaps I want to impose my own analysis on Ifemelu, but I guess I was hoping for Ifemelu to stand for something deeper… More later…
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