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Discovering America

Slavery, Barack Obama said in his 18 March 2008 speech “A More Perfect Union,” known in the common parlance as the “race speech,” was America’s “original sin.” The future president was echoing thinkers who had come before him; Thomas Jefferson conceived of the institution as a wolf the United States had seized by the ears: “we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Essayist John Jay Chapman turned to reptilian imagery: “There was never a moment during this time when the slavery issue was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.” 

Obama’s speech makes an appearance in Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about immigration, race, and the United States, which also manages to speak to a nouveau Africa, technology, and romance, and the President’s words receive a mixed response from the characters. “It’s immoral to equate black grievance and white fear like this,” one comments, though not everyone agrees with him. He might be right, too, though he doesn’t turn out to be the most sympathetic of people. That’s the kind of novel Americanah is. 

Obama’s presidential bid in 2007 and 2008 is important as a background event in Americanah, not so much because the book is about American politics, but because a novel about race in America in the 21st century could not look away from proceedings so salient to its concerns. What, however, Americanah has to say to you about race in America might depend on where you come from. 

Ifemelu is an assured and incisive Nigerian woman who moves to Philadelphia for university, not because she shares the romantic immigratory aspirations of her high school boyfriend, but because the civil institutions of her country disintegrate and the opportunity presents itself. When she arrives, she discovers what she later describes as “American tribalism”: the nation’s constructs of class, ideology, region, and race. The last of these is the most crucial. “I only became black when I came to America,” she will later explain. “I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” 

It might delight — or irritate — Americans to see their social structures dissected so blandly, but since Americanah is a book about the immigrant experience as well as the black experience, foreigners who have spent time in America will recognise the strange fictions of American society, as well as the American inability to recognise those fictions as something idiosyncratic to their own nation and a product of its particular history. 

Ifemelu starts a blog about race in the United States, and remarks in one post, “Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure out.” Here is the nation’s insularity: even when Americans can recognise their social structures, they struggle to understand their artificiality: that there is no intrinsic reason, for instance, for new-world Spanish speakers to be, if they are in the United States, members of a new race called Hispanics. Or for African Americans to constitute a race that is in some ways more akin to a class. (As Ifemelu blogs, “In America’s public discourse, ‘Blacks’ as a whole are often lumped with ‘Poor Whites.’ Not ‘Poor Blacks and Poor Whites.’ But Blacks and Poor Whites.’ A curious thing indeed.’”) 

Ifemelu’s blog, excerpted throughout the book, is sharply observed, but not so much as is Adichie’s novel. Americanah reverberates with an outsiders’ perceptiveness, and its America is clearer and more vivid as a result. Someone who understands what it is to “hunger ... to support a team at the Super Bowl, understand what a Twinkie was and what sports ‘lockouts’ meant, measure in ounces and square feet, order a ‘muffin’ without thinking that it really was a cake, and say ‘I “scored” a deal’ without feeling silly” is someone well-placed to spotlight the hypocrisies and superficialities of well-meaning white liberals (“Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought ‘culture’ the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with ‘rich’”) or to comically illuminate American predilections thus: 

And they ambled, these Americans, they walked without rhythm. They avoided giving direct instructions: they did not say “Ask somebody upstairs”; they said “You might want to ask somebody upstairs.” When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say “Sorry.” They said “Are you okay?” when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said “Sorry” to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, “Oh, it’s not your fault.” And they overused the word “excited,” a professor excited about a new book, a student excited about a new class, a politician on TV excited about a law; it was altogether too much excitement. 

Even though she directs her attention to topics Americans find fraught and uncomfortable to discuss, Adichie’s prose eschews the stolid: her novel is delightfully and buoyantly narrated, her characters drawn as carefully as her social commentary. While Ifemelu builds a life in the United States, her high school boyfriend back in Nigeria, Obinze, charts an alternate path to success, and the potential for the story to become a romance reverberates through the background. 

In the opening pages of Americanah, we learn that Ifemelu has decided to close her blog and return to Nigeria, a journey entirely at odds with American mythology surrounding the immigrant story. The United States is supposed to be a place where immigrants arrive, find opportunity, and become Americans, and even though throughout the nation’s history immigrants have travelled back and forth between the new world and the old, that complexity does not figure into the national self-conception. 

It is characteristic, however, of Americanah’s willingness to resist easy narratives in favour of vivid truths. This openness and easy honesty makes this novel an insightful and compelling illustration of the contemporary United States and the globalised world it is nestled within.