Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest work of fiction, Americanah, is a romantic novel that compels readers to look at race relations in the West in a new way. It interrogates the way white people conceive of the idea of Blackness by looking at the lived experience of race relations in America through the eyes of a Black person who has grown up in Africa. Americanah traces the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who fall in love in their youth and are then separated because of their desire to create better lives for themselves in the West. Adichie recognises the tendency in the West to reduce people from poorer countries to stereotypes, such as that of the impoverished immigrant grateful to be allowed to come to the West. Thus, she takes care to show the full range of their emotions and expectations of the West to her readers. The novel depicts the pain they both feel as they are apart, demonstrating their individuality beyond their identities as people of the developing world.
Adichie also depicts an interracial relationship between Ifemelu and her white American boyfriend, Curt. The novel shows us the development of this relationship solely from the point of view of Ifemelu, giving her power in the relationship to tell her own story as a Black woman, rather than as a Black woman in America dating a white man. Adichie portrays both the joyful and tragic parts of their relationship, illustrating how they come to be aware of their differences and the different ways they are perceived by the world. When Ifemelu meets many of Curt’s friends and family, she is forced to confront her status as a Black woman, as she is racialized by the white Americans around her. Adichie’s honest portrayal of their relationship, in all its complexities, highlights how interracial relationships are still often used in a tokenistic way in much mainstream Western media, particularly in order to suggest that the West is a post-racial society.
The novel makes clear the fallacy of the idea of American society being post-racial, highlighting how it is often those who are quickest to make this claim that are most keen to implicitly maintain racial divisions. Adichie discusses how American society is tribal in its determination to maintain divisions along the lines of race, ideology and class, demonstrating how people are often seen as their race or ideological status before they are seen as an individual. She demonstrates how the process of racialisation is still used as an oppressive force in American society, limiting the lives of Black people by making them into an “other”. By focusing on the microaggressions and covert racist acts Ifemelu faces in America, particularly those from self-identified liberal Americans, Adichie demonstrates how covert racism can affect an individual’s sense of self, wearing them down as they realise that they will never be more than Black for many white people.
Yet, the novel abounds with strong Black characters, particularly female ones, demonstrating Adichie’s refusal to make Black people into passive victims of Western oppression. Another of Ifemelu’s boyfriends, Blaine, has a sister named Sian, who is presented as strong but also troubled, developing her character beyond the stereotypes of Black women in America. In the parts of the novel set in Nigeria, Adichie takes care to demonstrate the joys and realities of the familial relationships of her homeland, developing them more than the white families she depicts in the United States and England. Readers cannot help falling for the humanity and strength of Obinze’s mother, who watches out for Ifemelu tirelessly whilst working as a university professor. She is the character who makes us most aware of the tragedy of Nigeria, which has been severely hit by corruption and mismanagement in the government.
Americanah shows to its readers the lived reality of Black people in Western countries, and how the development of their identity is threatened by being made into an “other”. However, Adichie rebels against this tendency by depicting a Black person’s perspective of being “made Black”, and thus highlighting how Black people in America can live full lives outside of this idea.
Image: Verity Laycock