We open with Nigerian Ifemelu at Princeton as her fellowship is ending. We follow her to Trenton where she must go to get her hair braided because Princeton doesn’t have the facilities to deal with black peoples’ hair. During the six-hour process, we’re introduced not only to the other Africans in the salon but through flashbacks to her life to his point. Most books about black and race, I’ve read, contain a great deal of material that is meant for whites because blacks already know. Not Americanah.
Chimanmanda Ngozi Adiche’s Ifemelu experiences America in ways no American of any race could anticipate. She catalogues some of these observations in a blog (brilliant vehicle, Ms. Adichie) called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She’s bewildered, first of all, by all the self-consciousness about blackness. In Nigeria, everyone (more or less) is black, so race is simply not a matter for daily concern or conversation. There are matters of tribe and language to contend with, but not race. She’s naive about the dynamics and history of American racism and stereotyping. For example, when someone asks her if she likes watermelon and another person informs her that that’s a racist question, she’s befuddled.
Not for long, though. She soon begins to learn all that that being black means here. She moves in with an African American boy friend, an academic, and he introduces her to still more strains of thought on the subject, all of which she explores in her blog, which eventually begins to earn her a living. She has an aunt who is raising a son (Nigerian) and thus becomes acquainted the perils of growing up black and male in this country. In short, before long she acquires a pretty broad education in the subject.
Her journey to America and back home is full of adventures and lovers and analysis and makes for a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel. I love Ifemelu, her inventive life and wit and language and the fresh perspective on this country she brings to every page. I don’t think it’s a perfect book, but I wouldn’t trade in a word of it. It took me away.