Braiding the Strands of Culture: Interweaving Hair and Power in Adichie’s Americanah
Four braids wrap around the cover of Americanah, binding the stories and experiences of race within. Stories of realising one’s own race and how it changes your mobility in different places. Stories of understanding power. In Americanah, Adichie uses hair as a metaphor for race and the level of power it affords, challenging her intended audience of white, Western liberals’ assumptions about race and the depth at which racial inequality is entrenched within America today.
Americanah, a story of modern conceptions of race, insightfully begins with a journey from Princeton University to a Trenton hair salon, where the playing out of power will occur throughout the narrative. Adichie makes clear the distance, literally and metaphorically, between the “clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace” (3) with very few other black people, and the neighbourhood she can get her hair done. This Adichie describes in stark contrast: “the part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings, and no white people” (10). Within the first ten pages, Adichie has established opposing worlds of race and correlated power. This is the primary setting where hair, and the power it symbolizes, “happens.” What occurs here will appropriately be interspersed throughout the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze’s experiences in nations Adichie portrays as places where white privilege and power dictates society. Within the salon, the audience sees the same power dynamics that occur in the protagonists’ stories.
Occurring simultaneously are stories of African immigrants attempting to integrate into Western society, all who come from different countries and may even speak different languages, for example Mariama’s interspersed French dialogue. Aisha, like Obinze, is desperate to procure citizenship through marriage. There is also a level of respect afforded to those the most Americanized, seen in Ifemelu’s offense when Aisha assumes she has not lived in America long, and Aisha’s respectful reaction when Ifemulu tells her it has been fifteen years (19). These exchanges purvey a deeply entrenched ideal of power that is associated with America and its “people.” Adichie shows us this ideal integrated in white privilege with Kelsey’s notable appearance. The moment the “young white woman came in” (232), the power dynamic of the room shifted. The owner Mariama, who had casually greeted Ifemulu and gave her little attention, suddenly “wip[ed] her hands over and over in front of her shorts” and “smiled an overly eager smile” (232). The white-skinned Kelsey is given respect and power the moment she steps foot on the setting where American race issues are represented. Kelsey easily accepts and fills the role she unconsciously does in her society, having the power and privilege of being white. She is without question given and takes a voice over the room, dominating the conversation.
Quick to condescend, Kelsey assumes that Mariama “couldn’t even have this business back in [her] country” (232), that her children would have a worse life in Mariama’s home country Mali, as well as questions its social progress by asking if women are allowed to vote. Kelsey represents the assumptions that those in power are able to make, following the dialogue of the Afropolitan novels that Adichie aims to criticize. These narratives stereotype African characters as those with little agency who look to Western culture for mobility and stability (Sayers). Kelsey affirms this by touting novel Bend in the River, which from her social position she is able to confidently label as a truthful representation of modern Africa, even when speaking to Ifemelu, who succinctly criticizes this Afropolitan novel. Adichie writes: She did not think the novel was about Africa at all. It was about Europe, or the longing for Europe, about the battered self-image of an Indian man born in Africa, who felt so wounded, so diminished, by not having been born European, a member of a race which he had elevated for their ability to create, that he turned his imagined personal insufficiencies into an impatient contempt for Africa; in his knowing haughty attitude to the African, he could become, even if only fleetingly, a European. (233-234) It is these exact assumptions of Kelsey and Afropolitan narratives that Adichie wishes to draw out in her intended audience. Ifemelu “recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you came from America was” (233). Americanah does not read as a story written for Nigerians or even Africans, but as one for white, liberal Westerners criticized in this passage, who are interested and against racism yet fail to see its reality from their place of privilege.
Misunderstandings and assumptions of this audience are seen in Kelsey’s last moments in the salon, when she is shocked to discover that hair is used for braiding: “[o]h my God. So that’s how it’s done. I used to think African-American women with braided hair had such full hair!” Not only is she assuming that all black women are African-American, but she is apparently blind the reality of braided hair, which in this story represents the natural, “God-given” symbol of race versus relaxed hair. Kelsey non-surprisingly sticks to her own hair, appropriating a piece of black culture but symbolically refusing to acknowledge or take on the loss of power it provokes in America. Upon Kelsey leaving the salon, Ifemelu remembers Curt, another symbol of white privilege, with whom she worked out the loss of power associated with her African hair. Following the advice of Americanized Aunt Uju and Ruth, Ifemelu chemically relaxes her hair and obtains the “white-girl swing” (251) that, Adichie implies, wins her a job. The chemically relaxation is a symbol of the shedding of her natural African race to take on a standard of stereotypical American white beauty, and through it clearly gaining power. In a response to Ifemelu’s struggle with her hair, Curt, like Kelsey, does “not see why she should be so upset but was better off not saying so” (259), thus reinforcing Adichie’s criticism of white audiences through the portrayal of her white characters of privilege and power.
Ifemelu asks in her blog, “So is it me or is that the perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair” (367). Adichie, with astounding clarity and creativity, has answered this query. Those with “American” hair are granted power, and the closer non-whites can get to mimicking that appearance, the more they may acquire themselves. People today, especially Americanah’s target audience of privileged readers, are largely blind to modern racism. Therefore, Adichie substitutes skin colour for hair to illustrate that while audiences may believe their own “colourblindness,” prejudices continue to be deeply entrenched in America today.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2014.
Sayers, Jentery. “Americanah.” English 429C, University of Victoria, Victoria. 23 March 2017.
Prejudice in Americanah and The Scarlet Letter
Prejudice or alienation is almost always a theme, whether a prominent one or a minor one, within a work of literature. Art is about the human condition, and the human condition only significant because of struggle; a blessed life does not make a story. The novels Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne both explore the theme of prejudice. Americanah does so with a direct approach, using the protagonist’s blog to specifically explore the prejudice of racism in America. The Scarlet Letter does so subtly, by giving Hester, the oppressed character, a humble and accepting nature, which arouses the sympathy of the audience. However, while both novels utilize different intensities when addressing prejudice, they share some of the same methods of arguing against prejudice. In the novels Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, both authors use irony and character development to oppose the barriers of prejudice: racism in Americanah and intolerance of fornication in The Scarlet Letter.
Both novels use irony to expose the faulty logic behind the types of prejudice. In Americanah, Ifemelu’s blog discusses the wariness of immigrant Africans in being associated with the general African-American community: “admit it – you say ‘I’m not black’ only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that” (Adichie 273). The irony is that individuals with darker skin see the way others with the same appearance are treated, and so sub-consciously reject the identity to avoid being treated with prejudice. The “black” identity is immediately recognized as one to be avoided, as society has rejected it. The existence of this repulsion with being associated based on skin color is overwhelming proof of the ridiculous discrimination based off of appearance. Adichie intentionally shows this idea to enlighten the readers of the realness of racism in America.
In The Scarlet Letter, there is irony in the treatment of Hester, who is a publically announced fornicator in a Puritan community. Hester treats all those around her with kindness, and rejects any self-indulgence. However, the community refuses to acknowledge her kindness in light of the poor stigma surrounding ‘sexual immorality’: “Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those who she came in contact… expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere” (Hawthorne 277). Even “The poor… whom she sought out to be the objects of her bounty, often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them” (Hawthorne 278). She is completely isolated and suffers intense humiliation constantly because the Puritan community functions on a system of hierarchy and superiority, as Hawthorne quietly argues with poignant situational irony.
Moreover, both novels use character development to reflect a growth of character, in terms of recognizing and overcoming prejudice. In Americanah, Ifemelu discusses the social responsibilities of being “black” in America, explaining: “When you watch television and hear that a ‘racist slur’ was used, you must immediately become offended… Even though you would like to be able to decide for yourself how offended to be, or whether to be offended at all, you must nevertheless be very offended” (Adichie 274). Ifemelu shows an understanding of the racial tensions in America, and although she may miss the specific significance of racist activity, she recognizes it is her responsibility as a fellow black American to reject any of such activity. This is in contrast to her previous ignorance in regards to racial slurs, in the occasion which Ifemelu does not understand why the lady in the store refuses to describe the store girl as “black”. Throughout her experience and education of American culture, Ifemelu grows more aware of the sensitivity of race, therefore growing as a character. In The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan community eventually forgets its bitterness towards Hester, and “in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too” (Hawthorne 281). While this is not because the community has a change of opinion regarding the unforgiveable sin of fornication, it shows a softening of heart and a recognition of kindness on the part of the community. Hawthorne shows the first step towards shifting prejudice: a change in heart.
Though taken from strikingly different eras, Americanah and The Scarlet Letter both effectively argue against the illogic of prejudice. Novels, by nature, are designed to remove the readers from their own bias and enable them to see a different perspective. Taking advantage of this, the two authors show the reader that a prejudiced society is not hopeless, as a broadening of perspective enables the growth of a community.
The Power of The White Ideal
In Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, navigating the American establishment as an African immigrant is a constant struggle for Ifemelu and others like her. Ifemelu soon starts to experience that the power in America is held not by the few, but by the collective mass of white Americans, who by virtue of being seen as the norm get to dictate the dominant culture. The mechanism in which white Americans power is exercised is not through dramatic moments but through everyday interactions. White America exacts crippling pressure on Africans to conform to a European standard of beauty as well as a disregard for understanding individual immigrants stories– instead applying a generalized idea of the African immigrant as a whole to everyone. Ifemelu and others face an immense pressure in their everyday lives to conform to the message of a non-ethnic, white outwards presentation. Many immigrants give in and change themselves to be acceptable to the white standard, but Ifemelu goes through multiple personal battles to not sterilize herself– keeping essential features of her as a person intact.
One way in which the non-ethnic, white ideal is enforced is through the inadvertent policing of foreign, in particular African, accents by ordinary white Americans. One of Ifemelu’s first sobering interactions on an American campus comes while attempting to register for classes. The student directing her, Cristina Tomas, speaks so condescendingly towards her that Ifemelu thinks she has an illness. It’s not until Ifemelu’s second exchange with her that she comes to the realization that, “Christina 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 (163). When Ifemelu tells her she speaks English, Tomas replies: “I bet you do. I just don’t know how well” (163). Through infantilizing Ifemelu based purely on her foreign accent, Tomas is indirectly communicating that any accent she deems “foreign” –that is, not white– is less educated and inferior. Humiliated, Ifemelu “shrinks like a dried leaf” (164). Even though her voice had been a source of confidence for Ifemelu ever since she “led debate society in secondary school” (164) and had thought of American accents as “inchoate” (164), Ifemelu is humiliated by Christina Tomas’s judgment of her accent. Unthinkingly, Tomas is able to assert her power over Ifemelu through the security that comes from considering yourself the norm– as a nondescript white girl she doesn’t think twice about the effects of her words. The pressure to conform to the accent of the rank-and-file white American is readily acknowledged by Ifemelu’s peers in the African Students Association. After Ifemelu firsts joins the ASA, her fellow member Mwombeki gives a spiel about how to adapt to life in America as an immigrant from Africa. Included in his speech is the statement that, “Very soon you will start to adopt an American accent, because you don’t want customer service people on the phone to keep asking you ‘What? What?’” (172). It is recognized by these young immigrants that a phase in their adjustment to America includes reaching the point where they’re so exhausted by being the “other” that they’d rather acquiesce to the anonymous voice over the phone than keep an important marker of their home culture. Not only will Africans assume an American accent, but as Mwombeki states, they will also “… start to admire Africans who have perfect American accents…” (172). The sway of the white culture in America is so much so that not only do foreigners feel the compulsion to make their accents more palatable to the average American, but doing so convincingly is seen as praiseworthy. Ifemelu herself buys into the mindset that sounding like a white American is not only easier but preferable to her natural accent. She only realizes the problematic nature of her and her fellow African students’ attitude when a young telemarketer tells her she “sounds totally American” (215) upon learning that Ifemelu grew up in Nigeria. Ifemelu wonders, “Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American? She had won; Cristina Tomas, pallid-face Cristina Tomas under whose gaze she had shrunk like a small, defeated animal, would speak to her normally now” (215). Ifemelu is wrestling with the idea that her accent being deemed “American” should equate to a “win” because Christina Tomas, the original judge of her accent, would now not speak down to her. But, as Ifemelu notes, it isn’t a true victory because to attain it she had had to take on “a pitch of voice and a way of being that was not hers” (216). Ifemelu almost plays right into one of the key mechanisms of the power structure in America that disguises assimilation (in this case, one’s accent) as a positive. In reality, when Ifemelu and her peers give up their accents they give up part of themselves– one step in the process of making their identities as “pallid” as Cristina Tomas’, a representation of bland, conformist white America.
Another way in which a white image is imposed as the ideal is through the discouragement of natural hair in the workplace, so much so that black women not only submit themselves to painful procedures in the hair salon, but deride natural hair themselves. When Aunty Uju gets the letter in the mail notifying her that she is now a licensed medical professional, after her initial happiness, she immediately expresses to Ifemelu her intention to relax her hair because “they will think you are unprofessional” (146). Ifemelu is mystified, asking, “So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” (146) But later, when Ruth, the career counselor, tells her to straighten her hair before an interview a less naive Ifemelu doesn’t bat an eye and gets her hair relaxed in a salon. When the hairdresser irons the ends, Ifemelu experiences a piercing sense of loss from “the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died…” (251). The hairdresser, downplaying Ifemelu’s physical burns, excitedly says, Wow, girl, you’ve got the white-girl swing!” (251) Ifemelu is sacrificing the vibrancy and soul of her hair, an essential aspect of many African women’s identity, for a lifeless “white-girl swing”– just because of the unwritten rule that states that natural hair is unprofessional. Just as Ifemelu’s once-dynamic natural hair is restrained into falling rigidly down her back, so too does the stringent European beauty standard limit the freedom of expression of women with ethnic hair. The notion of white hair being attractive and business-like is not only forced on Ifemelu and other African women, but is internalized and enforced by these women– the ones who are being repressed. After being told by white society that it was undesirable, Ifemelu is one of a number of women who have been empowered by going natural with their hair, learning to love her hair through the supportive, affirming members of sites like HappilyKinkynappy.com. But Ifemelu and her fellow proud wearers of natural hair in America face both subtle and overt judgments of their choice from members of their communities. When Ifemelu brings Curt, her white boyfriend, with her to visit Aunty Uju, Uju remarks to her niece, “he really likes you…even with your hair like that” (269). When Ifemelu points out that Uju would probably be “admiring my hair now” if “every magazine you opened and every film you watched had beautiful women with hair like jute” (269), Uju replies, “I am just saying what is true” (269). Aunty Uju is inadvertently aiding the enforcement of the harmful belief in the superiority of European hair– she truly believes that Ifemelu’s natural hair makes her less desirable. Aunty Uju is not merely commenting on the social standing of natural hair, she genuinely believes in its inherent ugliness, saying: “there is something scruffy and untidy about natural hair” (269). Women like the hairdresser and Aunty Uju have absorbed the sometimes implicit, but frequently explicit attitude of white culture that black hair is not only physically unattractive, but representative of unsavory character traits. The existence of the ideal of European hair, coupled with its imposition not only by white people, but by the very population which it is oppressing, combines to create a culture of self-repression that even captures Ifemelu.
The influence afforded to the white people around Ifemelu by the collective thinking that they are average allows them to generalize about Ifemelu’s personal story (as well as other African immigrants,) causing Ifemelu to feel emotionally abused. Overwhelmed from yet another failure to secure a job that she was more than qualified for and faced with being late with her rent yet again, Ifemelu’s frustration comes to a head when she tells off her roommate Elena for allowing her dog to eat her bacon. Elena responds with a smirk on her face, “you better not kill my dog with voodoo” (187). Ifemelu, feeling “acid in her veins,” almost hits Elena before retreating to her room, curling up on her bed, and contemplating what she had almost done. She realizes that she had not wanted to slap her roommate because of the lost bacon “but because she was at war with the world, and woke up each day feeling bruised, imagining a horde of faceless people who were all against her” (187). Elena’s thoughtless use of an offensive stereotype is the last straw for Ifemelu who has been experiencing the pokes of many small microaggressions since landing in the United States–leaving her “bruised.” The constant barrage of white people in Ifemelu’s life asking her and her fellow members of the African Students Association, “How bad is AIDS in your country” and telling her, “it’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa” (170)– essentially assuming that is her story– leaves Ifemelu feeling as if she’s not valued. One day, before the bacon incident, a “credit card preapproval, with her name correctly spelled and elegantly italicized” comes in the mail; Ifemelu feels “a little less invisible, a little more present. Somebody knew her” (162). Ifemelu feels so unnoticed and lonely from the white Americans lack of interest in her life that just for her name to be acknowledged means something to her. People like Elena who don’t even try to get to know Ifemelu and just lump her into their preconceived and ignorant notions of an African immigrant are exercising power obtained merely from being not the “other.” Ifemelu feels as if she is not being seen as an individual, that the “horde of faceless people who were all against her” are looking inward to their own preconceived notions and reflecting outwards their ill will.
The power of the ordinary white American is shown through the understated enforcement of the American accent and the degradement of the African accent. Ifemelu is mortified when Cristina Tomas judges her based on her accent, and despite disliking American accents, adopts one. Ifemelu is not alone– her peers in the African Students Association say that they themselves get so tired repeating themselves that they take on fake American accents. But the sway of the prevailing idea of the superiority of the American accent is so much so that students look up to people with flawless fake accents. Ifemelu reclaims some of the power she has given up by faking an accent when she reverts back to her Nigerian accent– by speaking in her own voice she is recovering a piece of herself that she had lost by conforming to the authority of white mainstream society. Just as Ifemelu loses part of her identity when she changes her accent so to does she cede part of herself when she relaxes her hair. The iron relaxing her hair burns away a living part of herself–all in service of reaching the American beauty standard of European hair. And just as Africans admire a well executed American accent, they themselves value the white ideal for appearance, and enforce it themselves as seen through Aunty Uju’s surprise that Curt would find Ifemelu’s natural hair attractive. By going natural, Ifemelu again regains the power she relinquishes when she relaxed her hair. The inconsiderate stereotyping of Ifemelu’s life by her white peers makes her feel as if she isn’t viewed as her own person leading to her depressed and volatile emotional state. The sense of security gained attained through feeling absolutely normal allows the white masses to attempt to bend to their will African immigrants, leaving people like Ifemelu battling to keep intact vital parts of their identities.
Who (And Who Isn’t) Home in the African Diaspora
In the essay, “Rethinking the African Diaspora: Global Dynamics,” Ruth Simmons Hamilton writes that, “those who have a strong connection to – and sense of – Africa as homeland often form networks with others who share in this, building alliances based on similar experiences and worldviews and shared circumstances in the African Diaspora” (Hamilton 3). It seems important to note that these bonds that form between individuals who view “Africa as a homeland” require a lot more than a similar skin pigment or continent of familial origin. Rather, Hamilton poses a second requirement for these “networks” among people of the African Diaspora to form: the alliance must be “based on similar experiences and worldviews and shared circumstances in the African Diaspora.” With this scholarship in mind, the characters’ ultimate romantic fates in both Adichie’s novel Americanah and Haile Gerima’s film Teza makes a lot more sense. While Ifemelu’s relationship with Obinze seems a bit more promising than Anberber and Azanu’s, both narratives end in productive unions of people who share the same homeland, be that union a life together or the creation of a new life. Both of these ultimate relationships signify a return to the homeland for Ifemelu and Anberber in order to create a more finished Diasporic journey for the characters.
Rita Kiki Edozie’s essay, “African Perspectives on Race in the African Diaspora: As Understood by Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah,” extrapolates on how authors use romantic plot points to make much larger points about one’s connection to their homeland in the African Diaspora. For instance, Edozie writes that, “Adichie also articulates her theme through Ifemelu’s many relationships — with Obinze, Curt, and Blaine respectively (one a fellow Nigerian, the next a white American, and the last an African American)” (Edozie 69). By putting her protagonist, Ifemelu, in romantic contrast with two different diasporic experiences (that of a “fellow Nigerian” and that of “an African American”), Adichie communicates more about Ifemelu’s own diaspora experience than she could have without these partners as a backdrop. Even extrapolating on Ifemelu’s experience with a “white American” brings clarity to Ifemelu’s journey. While the most important thing to note about Adichie’s narrative decisions here is that Ifemelu chooses Obinze at the end of the novel, her experiences with people outside of her diaspora ultimately draw her closer to someone with the most similar diasporic experience to herself: Obinze, who just so happens to share her homeland.
Although Blaine and Ifemelu ultimately share the same race in America, they have very different ideas of home. Blaine is fundamentally American. Not only is he a professor at Yale while Ifemelu is still struggling to gain her footing in America, but he also has fundamentally different struggles from Ifemelu in relation to his Blackness. To Hamilton’s point, Blaine and Ifemelu have very dissimilar “experiences and worldviews and shared circumstances in the African Diaspora.” Therefore, they have less of a shared network, than, say, Ifemelu and Obinze do. For instance, Edozie writes that, Adichie reserves her most introspective analysis of the African/African-American relationship for the love-story plot about Ifemelu and Blaine described by Adichie as a complicated love that Ifemelu has for Blaine because while admiring and learning from him about race and the African-American identity, she also resented him. Blaine represented African-Americans’ ‘racial’ righteousness, she thought. He expected her to feel (about race) what she didn’t know how to feel (Edozie 75). One way in which Ifemelu lacks a shared worldview and network with Blaine because of their different experiences in the African Diaspora is through political discussion. Edozie writes that, “in one scene, Blaine’s pretentious sister, Shan, would say of Ifemelu, ‘Because she’s African; she’s writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she’s writing about … if she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned” (Edozie 76). This circumstance is a very literal example of how not having the “similar experiences and worldviews and shared circumstances in the African Diaspora” can alienate people of the same perceived race. But in a more realistic sense, this alienation among members of different parts of the African Diaspora represents how white supremacy functions, alienating members of similar oppressed groups who would be a stronger force against white supremacy if they had the structural freedom to unite.
The importance of a shared diasporic experience to Ifemelu becomes even more clear at the end of the novel, when she reflects on her previous relationships just before Obinze shows up at her door. Through these reflections, Ifemelu comes to terms with her time in America, her place in the Diaspora, and what the idea of a homeland means to her. Adichie writes that, “she was reaching back to her past. She called Blaine to say hello, to tell him she had always thought he was too good, too pure for her, and he was stilted over the phone, as though resentful of her call, but at the end he said ‘I’m glad you called” (Adichie 586). Blaine, in this example, represents Ifemelu’s relationship to America at different times in her diasporic journey.
The idea that Blaine was, “too good, too pure” represents how Ifemelu looked at America before actually leaving Nigeria. For example, during “that triumphant ritual that signaled the start of a new life overseas: the division of personal property among friends,” one of Ifemelu’s friends tells her, “you know you’ll have any kind of dress you want in America” (Adichie 122-3). At that time, before Ifemelu ever set foot on America’s East Coast, her idea of America was like how she thought of Blaine: “too good, too pure.” However, as her conversation with Blaine goes on, he sounded “stilted over the phone,” just as America seemed rather unwelcome to her. She could not, in fact, have “any kind of dress” she wanted in America. However, despite how “stilted” and unwelcoming America was on her arrival, the country still preached maxims about being a nation of immigrants, inviting all into Lady Liberty’s open arms. In this sense, even though America might not actually feel welcoming to a lot of people in the African Diaspora in reality, the country still claimed to be “glad [she] called,” just like Blaine.
On the other hand, Ifemelu’s final narrative interaction with Obinze represents her relationship with Nigeria as her homeland. She and Obinze have the most similar diasporic experience of her romantic partners. For instance, Obinze arrives at her home and says, “Ifem, I’m chasing you. I’m going to chase you until you give this a chance.’ For a long time she stared at him. He was saying what she wanted to hear and yet she stared at him. ‘Ceiling,’ she said, finally. ‘Come in” (Adichie 588). Obinze says he was “chasing” Ifemelu, just as returning to where she considered home, Nigeria, chased her throughout the novel. The phrase, “for a long time she stared at him,” represents how Ifemelu felt upon returning to Nigeria. For a “long time,” it took her awhile to adjust to returning to her homeland, even though it was, in fact, “what she wanted.” The familiar phrases Obinze and Ifemelu use with one another in this interaction further assert the fact that they represent the return home for each other. He calls her “Ifem,” something none of her other lovers called her. And in turn, she refers to Obinze as “Ceiling,” their old, incredibly intimate nickname. The comma in “Ceiling,’ she said, finally,” even elongates the amount of literal time it takes her to take him back, perhaps suggesting the long journey back to Nigeria that this book takes both of them on. Out of every partner or character that Adichie contrasts Ifemelu against, Obinze has the most similar nature of “a strong connection to – and sense of – Africa as homeland.” Therefore, it makes sense that Adieche would use him to represent her ideal “network,” building a romantic alliance “based on similar experiences and worldviews and shared circumstances in the African Diaspora.”
Similarly, in Gerima’s Teza, the protagonist also has the most success in a relationship with someone from his homeland. Anberber tried to have a relationship with Cassandra, away from home, but they had very different perspectives of the world. He never communicated with Cassandra that he was ready to be a father, and therefore that child never came to be. Cassandra thought bringing a child into such a cruel and racist world would be cruel, but Anberber did not agree. However, Anberber ends up having a child with Azanu, someone who mirrors his experience in the African Diaspora. Not only do Azanu and Anberber share a homeland, but she also represents the feeling of isolation that Anberber feels upon returning home. Azanu lived in exile, and, in a sense, so did Anberber when he comes back from Germany. She represents the feeling of alienation that he feels from his homeland after having so much trauma in his hostland; and, in that sense, Azanu represents Anberber’s current perception of home. The successful birth of his second child (and the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the event in the film) suggests that Anberber has completed his journey. While he did not create life in Germany, he created it upon returning home, thus ending his journey and starting a new one for his new child.
In Gerima’s Teza and Adichie’s Americanah, the protagonists’ ultimate romantic relationships represent the diasporic return to the homeland. Ifemelu and Anberber both experimented with dating people with less similar diasporic experiences than themselves, and in both narratives the characters that they were closest with at the plot’s end represent home. While Obinze is Ifemelu’s only major romantic prospect who shares her homeland and the one who most nearly mirrors her experience in the African Diaspora, Azanu represents Anberber’s emotions about the return to the homeland, hence why it was her that he has a child with rather than Cassandra. In both of these narratives, Hamilton’s assertion rings true: “those who have a strong connection to – and sense of – Africa as homeland often form networks with others who share in this, building alliances based on similar experiences and worldviews and shared circumstances in the African Diaspora.” The final relationships in both Teza and Americanah support the idea that Hamilton’s closest “networks” in the African Diaspora require “shared circumstances in the African Diaspora.”
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Anchor Books, 2014.
Conyers, James L. The Black Family and Society. Transaction Publishers, 2015.
Gerima, Haile, director. Teza.
Hamilton, Ruth Simms. Routes of Passage. Michigan State Univ. Press, 2003.
Americanah as a Sex-Positive Bildungsroman
Many feminists deem sex-positive sex education necessary in order to promote safe, consensual, and healthy sex habits in adolescents that will leave an effect that lasts a lifetime. In the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, however, Ifemelu’s journey through learning about herself as a sexual being seems, at times, less than healthy, and certainly not sex-positive. In Nigeria she has no formal sex education to speak of, and what she learns from the women in her community about sex varies from a religious abstinence-only education to a rather sexist one, involving a very boys will be boys attitude. And when Ifemelu goes to America, she sees a very different result of a similarly flawed sex education system: one where racism infiltrates its way into the bedroom on a consistent basis. Yet despite the tumultuous path she takes to get there, Ifemelu ultimately comes out of her adolescence as a sex-positive woman. Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie has a multitude of plots, but Ifemelu’s journey serves in part as a sex-positive bildungsroman.
Adichie’s TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” outlines exactly how feminism is inherently sex-positive. When criticizing globally sexist practices, Adichie says, “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” Teaching girls to “make themselves smaller” implies that the patriarchy teaches women that they should feel less powerful than men. When thought of in a sexual light, that power imbalance becomes even more toxic. Adichie continues: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important … Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage but we don’t teach boys the same?” This quotation furthers the problematic nature of being unfeminist in a heterosexual relationship, using Adichie’s definition of feminist from her TED Talk, “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” If women are supposed to only seek out marriage, it makes sense that they would settle for men who do not treat them well, who encourage them to “make themselves smaller” and give them less agency, which sounds genuinely dangerous in terms of one’s sex life. Finally, Adichie suggests that, “we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” This statement, within a lecture titled “We Should All Be Feminists,” is inherently sex-positive. Adichie is saying if boys have the freedom to be sexual beings, then girls should be afforded the same opportunity, which is both sex-positive and feminist.
In fact, Adichie’s upbringing in Nigeria mirrors the differences in sex-positivity that Ifemelu sees when she comes to America. For instance, in her TED Talk, Adichie had the following experience upon identifying as a feminist in Nigeria: “An academic, a Nigerian woman, told me that feminism was not our culture, feminism wasn’t African, and that I was calling myself a feminist because I had been corrupted by Western books.” Maybe to some people, even “an academic” such as the woman Adichie mentions here, feminism “wasn’t African,” but in a lot of ways it isn’t American either. For instance, when Ifemelu goes to get her hair braided, she observes a rather unfeminist interaction between an African American woman and the African women braiding her hair. Adichie writes,Halima’s customer tilted her head this way and that in front of the mirror and said, ‘Thank you so much, it’s gorgeous!’ After she left, Mariama said, ‘Very small girl and already she has two children.’ ‘Oh oh oh, these people,’ Halima said. ‘When a girl is thirteen already she knows all the positions. Never in Afrique!’ ‘Never!’ Mariama agreed. (Adichie 126) Halima and Mariama slut-shame African American women as a whole here. They believe that this African American customer has children so young because she is promiscuous due to the fact that she had a very early knowledge of sex, or “already knows all the positions.” However, in some cases, having an early knowledge of sex can be very empowering for women. Perhaps if Ifemelu had more sex education other than, “to let him kiss and touch but not to let him put it inside,” then her first sexual experiences would have been more comfortable (Adichie 65). Maybe the African American woman in the braiding salon wanted children young and was happily sexually active, or maybe she herself could have also benefited from learning about contraception at a younger age before she started having sex. No matter what this woman’s circumstance is, it benefits neither group of women for them to judge one another on their sexual practices. In fact, it plays into the patriarchal notion that women should not support each other, thereby “shrink[ing] themselves” and making them ununited and less powerful. Ifemelu’s early experiences and instructions about sex were far less than sex-positive, and, therefore, unfeminist.
In a caricature of a religious, abstinence-oriented upbringing, a leader at church tells a girl in front of Ifemelu, I saw you wearing tight trousers last Saturday,’ Sister Ibinabo said to a girl, Christie, in an exaggerated whisper, low enough to pretend it was a whisper but high enough for everyone to hear. … ‘Any girl that wears tight trousers wants to commit the sin of temptation. It is best to avoid it. (Adichie 61)Sexualizing someone not even old enough to be called anything but a “girl” seems rather inappropriate, and definitely feels like a function of the patriarchy. Ifemelu grew up in a world where “wearing tight trousers” and thereby owning her body a bit is something to be publicly shamed for, exemplified by the fact that “Sister Ibinabo” chastised “Christie, in an exaggerated whisper, low enough to pretend it was a whisper but high enough for everyone to hear” on purpose. An upbringing like this one seems plainly unfeminist and sexist, but Ifemelu also has to deal with more grey area when learning about how the world around her sees the feminine aspect of her identity. Two important female mentors in Ifemelu’s life, Aunty Uju and Obinze’s mother, give Ifemelu some rather convoluted advice on growing into a sexual being. For instance, when Obinze’s mother takes it upon herself to direct Ifemelu’s sex life, her intentions definitely seem more positive than Sister Ibinabo’s were, yet her advice is still problematic. For example, Obinze’s mother says, My advice is that you wait. You can love without making love. It is a beautiful way of showing your feelings but it brings responsibility … I will advise you to wait until you are at least in university, wait until you own yourself a little more. (Adichie 87)Obinze’s mother is not entirely in the wrong here. Her advice gives Ifemelu the freedom to wait, and also supports her eventually becoming sexually active. However, she does not give Ifemelu the option to have sex in the present moment if she wanted to. She encourages waiting, and fears that Ifemelu is too young to handle the “responsibility.” Ideally, people Ifemelu’s age should be educated about having safe, responsible sex early on so that when these sexual desires come, they can have sex safely. But Obinze’s mother knows that is not the case with Ifemelu and her son, so she tries to protect both of them in a rather condescending manner that unfortunately does not give Ifemelu much agency in the situation.
However, talking about the complexities of sexual relationships at all definitely sounds like it was a positive thing for Ifemelu. After all, before speaking with Obinze’s mother about this, her only conversations with adults about sex were rather brief and vague ones with Aunty Uju, such as this instance here: Aunty Uju brought her James Hadley Chase novels wrapped in newspaper to hide the near-naked women on the cover … talked her through her first menstrual period, supplementing her mother’s lecture that was full of biblical quotes about virtue but lacked useful details about cramps and pads. When Ifemelu met Obinze, she told Aunty Uju that she had met the love of her life, and Aunty Uju told her to let him kiss and touch but not to let him put it inside. (Adichie 65)Although Aunty Uju definitely exposed Ifemelu to a bit more realistic sexuality that “her mother’s lecture that was full of biblical quotes about virtue but lacked useful details,” unfortunately Aunty Uju also falls victim to teaching Ifemelu to be ashamed of her identity as a sexual being. For instance, the “James Hadley Chase novels” were “wrapped in newspaper to hide the near-naked women on the cover,” rather than the female body in its natural form being celebrated. It makes sense that Aunty Uju felt the need to hide these things in a household so religious as Ifemelu’s mother’s, it just seems like an unfortunate outcome nonetheless. As progressive as Aunty Uju might sound in comparison to Ifemelu’s mother, she still approaches talking to Ifemelu about sex in an abstinence oriented manner, saying she should not let Obinze “put it inside.” However, all this did not stop her from having sexual desire, and, incredibly enough, it didn’t stop her from expressing that desire to Obinze at a pretty young age. When the couple first meets and flirts with one another, Ifemelu asks, “aren’t we going to kiss?’ … He just seemed startled. ‘Where did that come from?’ ‘I’m just asking” (Adichie 75). Here, Ifemelu elicits a lot of hope. Although she grew up being told all her life that her sexuality was a negative thing, from having church leaders denounce and sexualize the young female body to having her mother and Aunty shy around the topic of female sexuality, Ifemelu still has the confidence to assert herself as a sexual being. By asking, “aren’t we going to kiss?” Ifemelu implies that she has a sexual desire she is confident enough to voice, which seems pretty remarkable and sex-positive for a person with an upbringing such as her own.
Although Obinze might not have as much toxic masculinity as some of the other male characters in the book, Ifemelu’s initial sexual experiences with him seem pretty problematic at times. Obinze follows a rather textbook boys will be boys attitude and does not take personal responsibility for his sexual actions in the way that Ifemelu was taught to at the beginning of the novel. For instance, just before they have sex for the first time, Obinze tries to convince Ifemelu that having sex with him is okay even though she does not seem sure about her choice. She says to him, “you’ll say anything now because your brain is between your legs,” and Obinze responds, “but my brain is always there!” (Adichie 114). Here, Obinze blames his masculinity for trying to convince Ifemelu to have sex with him. Saying his “brain is always there” might have been Obinze trying to be funny, but in actuality it relieves him of any blame of trying to persuade Ifemelu into doing something she had not thought through herself beforehand. As one would expect after a comment such as this, Ifemelu’s first experience with sex sounds less that ideal. Adichie describes Ifemelu’s first time, writing, “she had been tense through it all, unable to relax … She had imagined his mother watching them; the image had forced itself onto her mind” (Adichie 114). Here, Ifemelu has two rather uncomfortable experiences. Firstly, she genuinely does not feel comfortable with her decision to have sex with Obinze, evidenced by the fact that she “had been tense through it all, unable to relax.” Secondly, during the first time she has sex the shame that the older women around her taught her to feel around the act stuck to her mind so closely that it inhibited her ability to enjoy sex at all. She feels so guilty for being a sexual being that the “image [of Obinze’s mother] had forced itself onto her mind.” Clearly an intrusive thought like this suggests that Obinze’s mother had a pretty big (and somewhat negative) impact on how she views her own sexuality. It is important to note that she still felt this shame even though she was in university and owned herself a bit more, as Obinze’s mother suggested.
Owning yourself, or your own sexuality, sounds like a difficult feat when the world and its patriarchy tells you that your body is not your own. As if on a mission to prove that the patriarchy feels entitled to the female body, especially the Black female body, Adichie includes a rather upsetting nonconsensual sexual experience in Ifemelu’s narrative. Ifemelu’s experience getting paid for sex acts with the tennis coach reads as tragic, rightfully so. Adichie writes, that Ifemelu, “… did not want to be here, did not want his active finger between her legs, did not want his sigh-moans in her ear, and yet she felt her body rousing to a sicking wetness … He had not forced her. She had come here on her own” (Adichie 190). However, although “she had come” to his house “on her own,” her experiences as a member of the African Diaspora did, for all intensive purposes, “force” her to go to his home and have a sexual experience she did not at all want to have. As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw explains in “Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite- that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. (Crenshaw 1) Crenshaw’s words ring wildly true in Ifemelu’s case. In her interaction with the tennis coach, she definitely experienced “violence.” Afterwards, Ifemelu notes that, “She could not sleep, she could not distract herself” (Adichie 191). However, as Crenshaw wrote, this violence was “shaped by other dimensions of … [her identity], such as race and class.” If Ifemelu had been like her white roommates, born in America and immune to the specific type of racism Black African women experience, she could have gotten another job and made money immediately. If her parents or more of her family lived in America she might have had other people who could keep her going financially until she found a job herself, as she eventually ended up doing. But the body Ifemelu inhabits, that of a Black woman in the African Diaspora, set her up in terms of her “race and class” to experience the “violence against women” that Crenshaw mentioned. Additionally, Crenshaw proves her point further later in her work, saying, I observed the dynamics of structural intersectionality during a brief field study of battered women’s shelters located in minority communities in Los Angeles.
In most cases, the physical assault that leads women to these shelters is merely the most immediate manifestation of the subordination they experience. Many ‘women who seek protection are unemployed or underemployed, and a good number of them are poor. Shelters serving these women cannot afford to address only the violence inflicted by the batterer; they must also confront the other multilayered and routinized forms of domination that often converge in these women’s lives, hindering their ability to create alternatives to the abusive relationships that brought them to shelters in the first place. Many women of color, for example, are burdened by poverty, child-care responsibilities, and the lack of job skills. These burdens, largely the consequence of gender and class oppression, are then compounded by the racially discriminatory employment and housing practices women of color often face. Women of color are burdened as well by the disproportionately high unemployment among people of color that make battered women of color less able to depend on the support of friends and relatives for temporary shelter. (Crenshaw 2) Ifemelu’s “burdens” that led her to being inappropriately touched by the white man who paid her to do so were, in large part, as Crenshaw wrote, “largely the consequence of gender and class oppression.” If Ifemelu were a Black American man, perhaps she would have been offered work for doing manual labor rather than being paid to subject herself to a sexual assailant. In this way, her identity as a woman was indeed “compounded by the racially discriminatory employment and housing practices women of color often face.” With Crenshaw’s backing and research, it becomes clear that Ifemelu’s rather tragic experience has a lot to do with the intersection of her identity as a woman and her identity as a person of color in the African Diaspora.
As Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Sexual Politics, “because Black feminist analyses pay more attention to women’s sexuality, they too identify how the sexual exploitation of women has been a basic ingredient of racism” (Collins 87). This further proves the point that Ifemelu’s “sexual exploitation” here comes from racism. The tennis coach exploits her financial need as a result of her race and class, and puts her in an rather traumatizing situation as result. When Ifemelu reaches adulthood, she has a rather racialized sexual journey with her white boyfriend, Curt. For instance, Ifemelu notices that,In bed he was anxious. ‘Do you like that? Do you enjoy me?’ he asked often. And she said yes, which was true, but she sensed that he did not always believe her, or that his belief lasted only so long before he would need to hear her affirmation again. There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing. (Adichie 257)At first glance, it seems as though Curt just likes Ifemelu a lot and feels eager to please her. Asking “do you enjoy me?” sounds like a considerate question to ask. However, Ifemelu notices that these questions are not particularly about her pleasure as much as they were about him hearing “her affirmation.” She notes that something deep inside Curt seemed “lighter than ego but darker than insecurity.” This negative feeling Ifemelu notices is, unfortunately, a function of Curt’s racism. For instance, Collins writes, West African people’s proximity to wild animals, especially apes, raised in Western imaginations the specter of ‘wild’ sexual practices in an uncivilized, inherently violent wilderness. Through colonial eyes, the stigma of biological Blackness and the seeming primitiveness of African cultures marked the borders of extreme abnormality. For Western sciences that were mesmerized with body politics, white Western normality became constructed on the backs of Black deviance, with an imagined Black hyper-heterosexual deviance at the heart of the enterprise. (Collins 120)This information explains why Ifemelu felt as though Curt’s actions during sex expressed something about him “darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing.” This thing was, more accurately, his whiteness. His insecurity comes from his racist “Western imagination” of the idea that Black people have “wild’ sexual practices in an uncivilized, inherently violent wilderness.” He worries that because he is white, her “imagined Black hyper-herterosexual deviance” will not be satisfied with his “White Western normality,” hence making his insecurity less than pure.
Because Curt’s internalized racism tainted Ifemelu’s sex life with him and made it sound rather unpleasurable, she cheats on him. When describing her sexual consort, the man who lives in her building, Ifemelu is simply looking for the positive, unproblematic, exclusively sexual experience she did not get to have at any other point throughout the novel. She explains that, “the way he dressed made him seem superficial to her, and yet she was curious about him, about how he would be, naked in bed with her” (Adichie 356). The fact that Ifemelu expresses her sexual desire so bluntly points toward a sexual revolution in her narrative. When describing her encounter with the man in her building, she notes that, “the sex was good the first time” (Adichie 365). It was not uncomfortable, or tainted by shame in herself as a sexual being. She did not feel as though her identity was being exploited as it had been before. The sex simply felt “good.” Although the Western world in particular treats infidelity as something inherently negative, the fact that this sexual experience was the most sex-positive one Ifemelu had thus far in the narrative seems like an inherently positive thing, and a breakthrough in her sexual coming of age.
Ifemelu completes her sex-positive bildungsroman when she stands up for her sexual identity when Curt attempts to slut shame her. Slut shaming involves someone shaming another person for their identity as a being with sexual desires, and can feel rather humiliating. For example, Curt tells Ifemelu that when she slept with the man in their building, she,… gave him what he wanted,’ Curt said. The planes of his face were hardening. It was an odd thing for Curt to say, the sort of thing Aunty Uju, who thought of sex as something a woman gave a man at a loss to herself, would say. In a sudden giddy fit of recklessness, she corrected Curt. ‘I took what I wanted. If I gave him anything, then it was incidental.’ (Adichie 357)This moment represents the final chapter of Ifemelu’s character going from someone uncomfortable with her own sexuality to a confident, feminist, sex-positive woman. She recognizes that the women who first taught her about sex was not inherently sex-positive, then compares Curt’s slut shaming statement to that upbringing, noting how what Curt said was “an odd thing for Curt to say, the sort of thing Aunty Uju, who thought of sex as something a woman gave a man at a loss to herself, would say.” Ifemelu feels “giddy” when she tells Curt that she “took what … [she] wanted,” her own sexual pleasure, because she finally has the confidence and feminist mindset to appreciate her own sexuality and not let others shame her for it simply because of her identity.
In Adichie’s Americanah, readers watch Ifemelu transform from a girl taught to be ashamed of her own sexuality, to someone who takes confident ownership of her identity as a sex-positive Black woman. Although Ifemelu’s positive outcome at the end with Curt might seem unrealistic, it gives a rather hopeful feeling that even with a lack of early sex-positive, feminist sex education, women still have the possibility to have sex free of shame and other problematic ideas. As a Black woman in the African Diaspora, Ifemelu faces even more challenges when confronting her sexual identity, but Adichie gives her character a positive outcome nonetheless, encouraging all readers that sex-positivity, just like feminism, is possible no matter the oppression one faces.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Anchor Books, 2014.Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge, 2006.Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins.” Jstor.“Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”TEDtalksDirector. “We Should All Be Feminists | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 May 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6ufvYWTqQ0.