Why Every Non-Black Person Should Read “Americanah”

Book review

Image created by Anu Anniah

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on my reading list for a while. I finally finished it, and what a read it was! I would not be exaggerating if I said it changed my worldview.

Americanah was unputdownable for the eye-opening information, the breezy writing, as well as the overall narrative. I think I’ll be reading it again … and again.

The book traces the journey of two lovers Ifemelu and Obinze through their starry-eyed childhood into adulthood as they chase their dreams and build their lives. This post is not a review of the book. It is unfair to try to capture the essence of a nearly 500-page powerful story in a few paragraphs.

What I will instead record here is how the book changed my perspective directly and indirectly. Various parts of the book made me stop, reassess my views, and try to reform my thinking. At times, the book made me feel vulnerable as a woman of color. At other times, I felt guilty of inherent biases that I was not aware of until something in the book made me realize it.

I may be brown, but that doesn’t stop me from ‘seeing’ black

As I read the book and the experiences that the central character Ifemelu and others went through, I stopped sometimes to examine my own belief systems. I tend to think I am open and modern and fair in my views. Sometimes a book like this comes along and shakes that faith.

There is a scene in the book where Ifemelu’s nephew Dike comes home upset. The group leader in his camp gave sunscreen to everyone but him, stating that he didn’t need it. The implication here is that blacks don’t need sunscreen.

Suddenly I wasn’t very sure about how I would react given the same situation. If I was the camp leader, would I have realized that skin is skin, and sunburn is sunburn regardless of color?

I recalled this joke from long ago.

A white woman is in a casino in Vegas and has won herself a bucket full of quarters. She is in the elevator heading to her room when 4 big black men get in with her. She clutches the bucket tightly.

One man says, “hit the floor, lady”, and she immediately crashes to the floor and her coins fly all over. The man laughs, helps her up, and explains that he meant for her to press the button for her floor. She totters out of the elevator embarrassed.

Later she receives a dozen roses with a 100 dollar bill clipped to each rose. Attached is a message that reads:

Thank you for the best laugh in years — Eddie Murphy.

I am not sure how I will react in a similar situation. The fact that I doubt my reaction says something about my true self and that is shocking.

No matter your race, creed, status, or color, you are an alien in a different country

I have visited a few different countries and have not faced any bad experiences this far. It may just be that I was too engrossed in the place to notice the slights, if at all. Or maybe I just got lucky. But when I read the struggles faced by Obinze, Ifemelu’s love interest, they seemed so real, so relatable.

When Obinze reaches out to his friend Emenike for help, he cannot help but wonder about how much Emenike has changed. The urge to blend in is strong. If that means changing your persona or beliefs or choices, so be it.

Ifemelu shows strength when she decides that she will not change her accent to fit into American culture.

When I am on calls with US teams, or when I visit the US, I find myself pronouncing ‘schedule’ the American way. Back home in India, we are schooled to pronounce ‘schedule’ the British way. Why do I switch? For acceptance? To be understood better? Because I am afraid they will make fun of me? I am not sure. I guess the urge to blend in is everywhere. And yet, I cannot help but wonder if it is more prevalent among people of color …

Next time, maybe I will stick to the pronunciation I have grown up with.

For once, the grass is not greener on the other side

In the book, Adichie has dedicated a lot of pages to hair care. And it is fully deserving of such attention. Never before had I stopped to think about the kind of effort that goes into maintaining hair for African women. We often complain that our hair is not straight enough or curly enough or is too curly. Still, life is much simpler for us with our fairly manageable hair.

Through the book, I learned about cornrows, hair relaxers, extensions, kinky hair, and lots of other hair-related information. I entered a whole new world of which I knew nothing and had never stopped to wonder about.

For me, the pivotal point of the whole discussion around hair was when someone advised Ifemelu to straighten her hair in order to get a job. That felt crazy. The fact that someone’s normal hair, the hair they are born with, is not okay, and needs to be changed to get a job seemed ridiculous.

And yet, when I think back, I remember how biased I was too, once upon a time. A time when a boy walked into the office with long hair tied in a ponytail, and I was aghast. Who makes these rules? Who feeds us these notions of right and wrong? As long as something about us is not harming another living being, we should be accepted as we are, right?

The entire beauty industry caters to one persona

The book points out the fact that magazines, mainstream media, and products claim to cater to global audiences while really, they are catering to only one section of the global audience. Ifemelu points out that most beauty products or beauty tips are irrelevant to the black population. Products claim to be ‘fit for all’, but in reality, they are not.

We are all brought up on a steady diet of what constitutes beauty and the shape, size, and color that goes with that. Without our knowledge, we are being led to believe in that definition of beauty. And strangely, we strive to achieve that definition for ourselves despite being genetically predisposed to something else.

Because we believe fair is equal to lovely, we think using fairness or lightening creams is the way to beauty. How naive to have succumbed to someone else’s version of beauty!

If we don’t talk about it or see it, it is not happening

Black Lives Matter is such a powerful movement. Incidents such as what happened to George Floyd and many more before and after him have left the world reeling. And yet, if I were to be totally honest, it was something that happened to someone far away. Sitting safe in my country, surrounded by people of my color, all of this was still someone else’s truth.

Reading Americanah has changed that to some extent. I would be lying if I said it has transformed me completely and now I am an activist! But reading about the characters in the book living through their very real struggles in day-to-day life has brought me closer to reality. I am not as detached as I used to be. I feel a kinship with people who are just a few shades darker than I am. In a different life, that could be me.

And there is so much more

The book is packed with observations about societal hierarchies. A society where black is lumped together with poor white. It is not poor blacks and poor whites, but blacks and poor whites, as if race is equal to class. This article has a race and racism theme tracker that shows how often the theme appears in each chapter of the book.

Regardless of your gender, color, or country of origin, if you have never wondered about what goes on in the minds of people of color, Americanah is a book to widen your world view.

And finally, probably the most powerful statement yet, is when Ifemelu says:

I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

I realized that this would equally apply to me. I am a tad fairer than the average south Indian. In spite of this, I would probably be categorized as brown. However, this will not matter as long as I am ensconced in my own land of birth. In the western world though, I would be a person of color.

Suddenly, I worry about my place in the race hierarchy.

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