Crossing Borders with Race: A Book Review of Americanah

Nigeria and the United States seem like worlds apart. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel Americanah, these two countries are bound together by the story of Ifemelu. In this novel, Ngozi shines again with her sharp thoughts, deep prose and extremely important observations of the world we live in. This is an honest reading, where the writer says more than you expect. Ngozi gives you the pleasant surprise of learning something new, of seeing the world from a different perspective with every page that goes by.

The story begins when Ifemelu, a Princeton student, is going to get her hair braided. As the scene of her braiding develops, we learn that she is a Nigerian woman who has been living in the United States for 13 years and has just decided to move back to Lagos. From the first chapter, Ngozi succeeds in making deep observations of cultural differences between people. For example, the women who braid her hair are all African like her. Yet, they believe that Ifemelu doesn’t eat “real food” because she is eating a granola bar, a very American thing to do for an African person.

As the novel progresses, the reader gets to learn more about who Ifemelu is and where she comes from. Born and raised in Lagos, she grows up with an image of America as the land of dreams. Her boyfriend dreams of America, and Ifemelu gets the chance to move to America for school.

When Ifemelu moves to America, she “becomes black.” Not once had she felt black in Nigeria, or had thought about what, culturally, the word “black” entails. She recognizes the differences between American Blacks and Non-American Blacks. Hence, Ifemelu experiences the hardships and differences of America and begins to write a blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non­American Black.” The blog is absolutely magnificent and presents some of the most provocative ideas about race in the book. Ngozi does not let one thing go and uses the nuances of the language to bring attention to the problem areas in our society. She also manages to do so with strong, uplifting prose that allows a laugh every once in a while.

Ifemelu’s story is intertwined with Obinze’s, her boyfriend in high school and university. He is the one who seems to know everything about America back in Lagos, and life surprises him by sending him away to London to live the life of the immigrant. This novel is not only about race, but it is about the universal experience of not belonging, of being an alien wherever you are. It is a story about crossing borders, physically and culturally. And, like all good stories, it is also a love story.

This novel is worth a read, or maybe a hundred reads. It speaks truths for every minority, and is extremely empowering. You close off the book feeling refreshed by the new perspectives and with a new understanding of the complexities and subtleties of race. This novel speaks of and to the world right now, where racism is excessive. Ngozi highlights the lack of equality in American society and how this issue is deeply rooted in all areas of the country.

By becoming aware through the reading of books like this, a person can understand new perspectives and recognize the need for real equality, an equality that can use differences as a positive asset.

These are some of the most provocative quotes from the book:

“When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it has not only disregarded this courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue. We are too superior/busy/cool/not-uptight to bother about how we look to other people, and so we can wear pajamas to school and underwear to the mall.”

“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

And if this book wasn’t great enough, they are making a movie of it now! Exciting news!

(Photo credit: epiphanyinbmore)

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