Americanah | Study Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Americanah | Themes

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Cultural and Personal Identity

Throughout Americanah, Ifemelu struggles with her cultural identity. Is she Nigerian or American? Is she African or simply black? She never reaches an explicit conclusion, but her decisions and behavior suggest that she ultimately finds a happy medium between the two.

Despite the movies she's watched and the books she has read, American culture is completely foreign to Ifemelu when she first moves to the United States. Although English is spoken in Nigeria, the slang and some of the terms are different. The more she learns about life in the United States, the more her speech patterns change, as do her expectations of everyday life. These changes are most apparent when she moves back to Lagos. Although she was once used to the heat and humidity of southwestern Nigeria, she can't stand it when she moves home. Good customer service wasn't important until she experienced it repeatedly firsthand. Even the way she acts with her social and occupational superiors has changed. After politely but forcefully criticizing Zoe to her new boss, Ranyinudo points out, "If you had not come from America, she would have fired you immediately." But there are some aspects of Nigerian culture that Ifemelu doesn't want to give up, such as eating bananas and nuts together and looking at the world from a global perspective, not an American-centered one. In the end, Ifemelu still identifies as a Nigerian, but a Nigerian who has experienced and enjoyed life in the West. She selects the parts of each culture she likes and ignores the things she doesn't.

Ifemelu also struggles with her personal identity, most notably with her romantic relationships. In her American relationships with Curt and Blaine, she molded herself according to their image of a perfect woman. For Curt, she was light and easygoing; for Blaine, she was politically and socially minded. However, neither of those personas was a perfect fit. She is happiest when she is truly herself—arguing, exploring, learning, and striving for excellence. That's the person she gets to be with Obinze, who doesn't expect her to change a single thing.

Ifemelu's hair presents a struggle that encompasses her personal and cultural identity. Societal norms in Nigeria and the United States both encourage black women to straighten or relax their hair. In Nigeria, it is a sign of wealth and social status, while in the United States, it is a means of assimilating to the standards set forth by white culture. But after doing it while living in Baltimore, Ifemelu realizes that having smooth and sleek hair isn't her at all. "The verve was gone. She did not recognize herself," the narrator says. Ifemelu doesn't identify with the beauty standards set by either of the countries she has called home. Instead, she goes her own way and lets her hair grow naturally, first wearing it in an afro and then going back to braids. It doesn't matter to her if she doesn't live up to the standards set forth in beauty magazines. She likes her hair, and herself, "the way God made it."

Race in America

Ifemelu never considered herself to be black before she came to the United States. Nearly everyone in Nigeria has dark skin, so what a person looked like really wasn't an issue. She quickly learns that race dictates everything in the United States, including where a person lives, how much money they make, what occupational opportunities they have, and how they are treated by others. Ifemelu's blog posts clarify her views on race. As someone who did not grow up in the United States, she recognizes that even though the days of blatant racism have somewhat passed, systemic racism still exists. In her post about white privilege in Part 4, Chapter 39, she gives the example of how a poor white person fares in the United States compared to a poor black person. Even though both people live in poverty, the white person is privileged because of the way society treats him. He's less likely to go to jail for committing the same offense as a black person. If he does end up in jail, his sentence will be shorter.

Ifemelu also learns that people of color are held to a higher standard than white people in the United States. She and Aunty Uju are both expected to alter their appearance to get "good" jobs even though the process of doing so is painful and can inflict long-lasting damage. Dike, who is just one of a few kids of color in the various schools he attends, is constantly admonished for talking in class and joking around while the white kids get away with it all the time. "He has to tone it down, because his own will always be seen as different," Aunty Uju explains to Ifemelu in Part 2, Chapter 21. It's the same reason she forces him to wear clothes he doesn't like to church. She recognizes that his race, not his ethnicity, is what makes him different.

Perhaps the most important thing Ifemelu learns about race in the United States comes from Ginika. Ginika has lived in the United States for a few years by the time Ifemelu arrives, and she has already absorbed and adapted to the culture. It is through her that Ifemelu first learns that Americans go out of their way to pretend race doesn't exist. This seems ridiculous to Ifemelu, who watches as a salesperson practically ties herself in knots trying to describe another salesperson without mentioning the color of her skin. As Ginika later explains to Ifemelu, "This is America. You're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things." As Ifemelu later concludes, ignoring race isn't going to solve any of America's problems with it—it will just exacerbate them.

Immigration

Many of the characters in Americanah immigrate from Nigeria to another country. Although their experiences ultimately differ, they all begin the same way—full of confusion, uncertainty, and fear. Aunty Uju comes to the United States with hardly any money to her name. She works three jobs and spends every moment of her free time studying for her medical license because her Nigerian credentials aren't valid in the United States. Ifemelu, too, arrives in the country with hardly any money. Unable to legally work on her student visa, she uses someone else's identity to find a job. When that doesn't work, she is practically forced to do illegal, degrading work just to survive. Lonely and bewildered by her new surroundings, she lives in constant fear of not having money to pay rent. Obinze, too, lives in fear. He does end up working illegally, which has him scrambling to find ways to become a citizen, even dishonestly. Through her characters, Adichie shows how the daily lives of immigrants can be fraught with so much uncertainty that they are forced to do immoral things.

Adichie also highlights how immigrants are expected to assimilate to their host country's cultures. Ifemelu and Aunty Uju both remove their braids and relax their hair so they can look "professional" for their job interviews. Obinze is struck by how strange it is that his Nigerian friend Emenike suddenly becomes interested in antique furniture and pretentious cuisine once he moves to England. Ifemelu ends up creating a career out of her attempts to understand race in the United States, which she shares with other non-American blacks, but this still isn't enough for Blaine, who thinks her motives for writing should be more deep-seated than curiosity. As Ifemelu explains in a blog post titled "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby," black immigrants don't just need to understand race in the United States—they need to have the same feelings about it as a black person who grew up there. Adichie's message is that assimilation isn't enough. Immigrants are expected to fully transform themselves into Americans with an American psyche. As she shows, this isn't possible.

Love

In addition to political and social topics, Americanah also tackles the theme of love. Adichie uses Ifemelu and Obinze's decades-long relationship to illuminate two major messages about love. The first is that true love is based on more than proximity and physical attraction. It is a meeting of the mind, soul, and body. Ifemelu has two other significant relationships over the course of the book, and each is good in its own way. With Curt, she feels cherished and free to explore everything American life has to offer. With Blaine, she feels purposeful and intellectual. But each of these relationships is missing a crucial connection. Ifemelu sometimes feels distant from Curt because of the differences in their upbringing (rich versus not rich) and the color of their skin. Although he becomes indignant when Ifemelu is treated poorly because of her appearance, he also doesn't grasp the more subtle racism she deals with on a daily basis, such as the way American media depicts the idea of beauty. Race also causes a rift between Ifemelu and Blaine, who grew up in the United States. Experiencing systemic racism since birth has given him a different point of view from that of Ifemelu, who didn't consider herself black until she moved to the United States. This causes a lot of tension in their relationship. Ifemelu and Obinze don't have any of these issues. They share intellectual interests, a cultural background, and even the experience of being an immigrant. They also have an incredibly physical connection. As Ifemelu explains, she always notices the ceiling when having sex with other men, but never with Obinze. The old adage may say that opposites attract, but Ifemelu and Obinze don't provide any support for this ancient wisdom.

Adichie's second point about love is that truly loving someone else makes one love themselves more. Ifemelu notices this when she and Obinze begin dating in secondary school. She can see herself through his eyes when they are together, which causes a sense of self-affection that she otherwise doesn't have. Obinze, too, likes himself more when he is with Ifemelu. When they are together, "he was as he had never been with another woman: amused, alert, alive," the narrator says in Part 7, Chapter 54. They complete each other—and for Adichie, that is the hallmark of true love.

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