Hair – a metaphor for race

10 June 2016

“braided hair”, “relaxed hair”, “long black weave highlighted with auburn”, “massive raucous curls”, “a mass of tight coils”, “hair worn in elegant twists”, “a long, straight weave”, “long locs grazing their necks”
These are a few of the descriptions of hair that pepper Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). Hair is important in this novel, which explores inequality, oppression, gender roles and the idea of home.  The other human characteristic that the principal character Ifemelu often comments on is skin colour:
“chocolate-skinned”, “skin the colour of gingerbread”, “caramel-skinned”, “coffee-skinned”, “honey complexions”.

Ifemelu is an expatriate Nigerian living in the US, first as a student and later as  fully-fledged citizen with a job, a green card and a condominium. The story follows her from her childhood in Lagos, through her schooling and subsequent studies at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, her first serious love affair, her struggles to find part-time work in America so that she can survive on her partial scholarship, her love affairs with a white man and an African American man, her decision to return to Nigeria. The progression of the novel is not linear, however, and has a complex structure that goes backwards and forwards in time. Parts of the tale are narrated by Obinze, the love of Ifemelu’s life.

It is foremost an exploration of race – what it means to be African (and how that is interpreted by non-Africans, who tend to lump everyone from that continent into one category, despite there being 54 countries, over 2000 languages and over 3000 distinct ethnic groups in Africa), what it means to be an African migrant, what it means to be African American. Ifemelu continually contemplates these issues and begins writing a blog about them. The blog is almost instantaneously successful, which is somewhat implausible given that there are approximately 30 million bloggers in the US and only about five percent of them make a living from it. However, this device allows the author to elucidate Ifemelu’s experiences of and opinions about racism in America. Some of her experiences are shocking, for example, the tennis coach who employs her to “relax” him (though this may have more to do with his attitude towards women generally rather than just Ifemelu’s exploitable situation). Others are more commonplace, like the white woman who always describes women of other races as “interesting” or “beautiful” – Ifemelu tells her to just call them “black”!

But the novel is also about personal identity (“standing at the periphery of her own life”), alienation (“he felt alienation run through  him like a shiver”) and homesickness (“a sudden stab of homesickness, so sharp and so abrupt that it filled her eyes with tears”). Anyone who has left the land of their birth and started again in another country will relate to this and will comprehend the misunderstandings that Ifemelu and others like her endure on a daily basis.

It is a good read though it is doubtful whether one completely enjoys a book like this – the issues are too prescient, significant and weighty for comfort. Nevertheless, the reader empathises with Ifemelu – she is likeable, clear-eyed and unsentimental – and one hopes that she can be herself back in Nigeria. As she says “I only became black when I came to America”.