‘Americanah’ : Embracing black hair and culture

Whilst studying for one of my University literature modules I came across ‘Americanah’, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I reluctantly began reading the novel over Christmas; the idea of reading a 500-page book for one essay slightly deterred me, but once I started this book, I found myself enraptured in the plot and character progression. I was an avid reader during my childhood, something which has sadly declined over the years, however as soon as I started ‘Americanah’ I found it completely enthralling and an easy read. Not only is Chimamanda an absolute icon (she’s in a Beyoncé song!!), the way she conveys such powerful and complex messages so simply is so appealing to me as a reader.

Americanah is a novel that addresses the multitude of representations and views of race, ethnicity, and nationality in the 21st century. It narrates the life, education and experiences of Nigerian immigrants and academics particularly the two lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze. The novel’s focus on immigration and being black in America and the Western world presents a narrative not often found in traditional, white imperialist literature. Ifemelu is a bold and intellectual character, she is not afraid to speak her mind or disagree with her peers, which was something I found admirable in her character. Adichie uses Ifemelu’s headstrong nature to point out many of the hypocrisies of American and western views of race. A passage that particularly stood out to me was a quote from Ifemelu’s narrative after experiencing a microaggression in her University housing:

‘In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.’

I found Adichie’s presentation of black women incredibly refreshing in comparison to much of the literature I read as a child. The women were bold, intellectual and often not afraid to speak up and be the outspoken opinion; I found myself hating the typical meek, timid white girl trope found in so much young adult literature I used to read.

Adichie’s representation of hair is very interesting. Being mixed race, accepting my hair in it’s natural state has been something I used to struggle heavily with in my teens and during school. Growing up in a predominantly white area meant I saw no-one that looked like me, so hair styles that worked for my white friends did not always work for me. Adichie presents hair as a vital part of the main character’s identity; her acceptance of her hair is symbolic of her character growth. Hair and haircare are ingrained aspects of black culture, Adichie poignantly states, ‘Relaxing you hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you… You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do’. The novel repeatedly goes back to an experience that Ifemelu has in a hair shop, which is outside of the quaint, majority white town of Princeton. Ifemelu has to travel to a suburb called Trenton, which Adichie marks with distaste, associating black hair, thus black culture, with a less refined society. Whilst Trenton is bustling with African Americans and somewhat ‘tainted’ through Ifemelu’s perspective, Princeton is calm and opulent. This embodies western views about black hair, something I, and so many black people have experienced. Black hair is deemed unprofessional and unkept, and the microaggressions and racism that stem from this are present in every aspect of the way that society operates. For example, when Ifemelu goes to a job interview she insists on relaxing and straightening her hair, as ‘Kemi told me I shouldn’t wear braids to the interview. If you have braids they will think you unprofessional’. Hair is a significant aspect of black culture, and the way Ifemelu finally accepts her own is incredibly significant of the overall acceptance and love she eventually holds for her culture and ethnicity.

Overall, ‘Americanah’ is not only a compelling love story about the importance of ‘being your own person’, but a refreshing narrative about the experiences of black people and black immigrants in the Western world. The novel preaches self-acceptance and black excellence, highlighting the systematic racism that still exists in the west today, despite its ‘changing manifestation’ from overt racism in previous eras. I found it hugely empowering. This novel has most certainly opened an interest for me in similar works that focus on the experiences of ethnic minorities and black women navigating life and love. I recommend this book particularly to black teens – your hair and your skin colour are empowering; embrace them.