A typical school reading list consists of classic novels written mostly by European men. The books convey themes of “coming of age” or “corruption within a high-class society.” This old-fashioned perspective means few African-American writers, let alone African writers, are widely read in high schools and universities. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie breaks into the ranks of the “elite” authors assigned to students and provides a new perspective on race in America in her novel Americanah.
In the novel, our heroine, Ifemelu, comes to America to go to college, leaving her family and friends behind in Nigeria. During her time in this country, she begins to write a blog about race in America from her own unique perspective. Ifemelu proudly calls herself an African, not an African-American. But she writes about being treated by others as an all-encompassing black figure. She is subject to the racism that African-Americans often experience in America. In order to find a job, Ifemelu must straighten her hair to look “professional,” rather than embrace the braids or afro that she loves.
She is also subject to discrimination because she is a foreigner. Other characters in the book assume that she and other international students cannot speak English, even though Ifemelu speaks better English than some Americans.
Since many Americans have become desensitized to social injustice, Adichie aims to reignite discussions about race through Ifemelu’s blog. She expands readers’ perspectives by making us more aware of the nuances of race.
For example, Ifemelu’s opinion in her history class that the N-word is not “always hurtful” and “depends on the intent and on who is using it.” An African-American in the class counters that “it’s because of the pain that word has caused that you shouldn’t use it.” The interaction shows that even though both students have dark skin, they come from vastly different cultures which should not be confused.
Once the brutal American environment controls and changes Ifemelu, she finds it difficult to return to Nigeria. Because I have always lived in America, I’ve never experienced the culture shock that Ifemelu felt. This book greatly enlarged my perspective on the issue of trying to adapt in two completely different countries. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for Ifemelu to adjust from life in Nigeria to life in America, and then back to life in Nigeria many years later. I commend Ifemelu for transitioning as smoothly as she did.
Since Adichie approaches race in America using a character with no prior experience here, she’s able to introduce ideas that people who have always lived in America might not otherwise realize. She makes it known that problems with race occur not only between races, but also within races. Just like America heavily influenced Ifemelu’s ideas on race, the story itself has enlightened me. The “melting-pot” of America contains people of various backgrounds and ethnicities. It’s important that people understand differences between people, and more importantly, respect those differences.
Marikunte is one of the winners of the "Penn State Reads" essay contest for 2014. Her review is a modified version of her winning essay. Marikunte is a freshman at Penn State, majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.