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reflections, reviews, Social Commentary

Americanah Part II

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.

Race:

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…

More about the book:

http://www.npr.org/2013/06/27/195598496/americanah-author-explains-learning-to-be-black-in-the-u-s

http://lfla.org/blog/tag/americanah/

http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/e-media/podcasts/aloud/americanah-novel

About ewurabasempe

Avid writer, culinary magician, author ready to take on the world

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Americanah Part II

  1. Yes! Thanks for writing this. There’s a certain privileged push towards redefining “Africanness” and recover it from the cesspool of jungles, tribal wars, and famine and I think part of that effort is distancing ourselves from what it means to be “black” (i.e., American Black which is already always signifies as problematic is some which way) or “African” which once upon a time was always exclusively emaciated and surrounded by flies. Instead now we paint “Africa” and “Africans” as some amorphous cosmopolitan hipster romance. So yes, on a radical political front, Ifemelu fell short. But that said, I must admit that I really enjoyed the book. After all, we only ask so much of our fiction and it’s sparks a conversation that demands a deeper analysis of these issues. For that I’m glad to have read it. Also for having some semblance of a character with whom I could identify.

    Posted by Anima | July 20, 2013, 5:53 PM
    • Anima,
      Thanks for commenting. I hope you read Part I. I loved the book as well. I couldn’t put it down literally.
      And I too identified with the characters at various points. So yay for representation!
      What I took issue with and what I have tried to articulate here is the fact that I felt the character of Ifemelu could have gone deeper. I get the distancing from the American Black but in the same vein there is a distancing from the uneducated or (semi-educated) African immigrants who continue to flood the U.S. This latter group for example only speak Twi or Wolof, speak English with some level of discomfort, eat fufu daily, braid hair for a living, build a mini Africa on 116 and Frederick Douglas (Harlem) etc. Meanwhile the Ifemelu group gets complimented on their articulation of the English language, sometimes don’t/refuse to speak their mother tongue, live in cookie-cutter-white-fence-homes as far away from 116th as possible etc. In reality both these groups are Black in America’s eyes and the sooner we realize that being identified with “the Blacks” is our chance to re-group, the less our delusion about not being “like them.”

      Posted by ewurabasempe | July 21, 2013, 11:28 AM
  2. thank you for your reviews ! i heard her speaking on NPR and wanted to get her book. her views are interesting in regards to her experience as a african elite in american versus a less education african immigrant and also as oppose to black american. i cant wait to read it…. wanting for it to come out in paperback or for the library to get it (as i am currently unemployed).

    Posted by sonsiris tamayo-dewitt | July 22, 2013, 2:17 PM
    • Hi Sonny! I miss you! Thanks for reading and responding. I wouldn’t have thought of her as that but that is exactly where she’s placed. Us egmacated Africans need to realize our privileges as opposed to as you said the two other groups. The fact that the book came out in hard cover itself says something. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the paperback. Sign up on the library wait list or do as I did: buy, read, and return.(shameless, I know!)

      Posted by ewurabasempe | July 28, 2013, 9:18 PM

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