- What do you read, my lord?
- Words, words, words.
- What is the problem my lord?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, is about race relations in America and Britain, immigration from Africa to the global North, the systemic division between the global North and global South, and the ways in which precarity—the lived experience of artificially created, pervasive economic vulnerability—makes us romanticize an elsewhere. It is a novel about living in the margins, of an America and Britain observed from the margins, survived by staying in the margins, and escaped or ejected from as the margins become increasingly narrowed. It presents the picture of a failure to create a life—not as an immigrant failure but as a failure of the American project and the American dream. It is a novel about the movements one makes to access privilege.
Americanah arrives on the fiftieth year after Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech; it comes at a time when report cards on race relations in America are necessary and abundant, when minorities in America, and blacks in particular, are staring down the barrel of Barack Obama’s second and final term, interrogating the nature of change, the meaning of progress, and the abstraction of an American dream that is so often a lived nightmare.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King dared to dream, we have report cards on racism in America and in Europe, but report cards are not enough there is systemic failure; there is a need for more discourses on race, and narratives that provide entry points for transversal solidarities that Paul Gilroy, in The Black Atlantic, insisted must “renounce the easy claims of African-American exceptionalism in favour of a global, coalitional politics in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism might be seen to interact if not to fuse.”
The main character in Americanah is Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman. The novel takes us through her childhood in Nigeria, to her enrolment in a Nigerian university, the interruption of her education by an academic strike, her departure for the U.S. in order to advance her education, her success there, and her eventual voluntary return to Nigeria thirteen years later. The titular Americanah is itself a part of the Nigerian lexicon, an appellation denoting one who has been to America. It marks an ontological discontinuity: the Americanah is both Nigerian and not, both African and not, both American and not. It is a word redolent with colonial memory, a polar opposite of the word Afrikaner (a white South African, typically of Dutch descent), both of which words recall the violence of forced belonging and the continual rootlessness of unbelonging.
Ifemelu’s story is animated by her writing of a blog on race in America and by her love for Obinze, her high-school sweetheart, whom she leaves in Nigeria and who endures a life of hardship in Britain before returning to Nigeria. Important also is her Aunty Uju, with whom she lives when she first arrives in America, and who settles permanently in the U.S. Ifemelu witnesses the growth of her aunt’s son, Dike, and his troubled development hints at the terrible difficulty of raising a young black man in America.
The situation for immigrants to the global North remains dire: where black asylum seekers in Switzerland are segregated from populations and treated like animals; where African migrants attempting to get to Italy die in their thousands due to the punitive anti-immigrant fortification of Europe; where, in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers— many of them African—are dying of unnatural causes, including suicide, at a rate of one a week; where circumcised African women in Spain have been compelled—with the promise that their psychological and relationship problems will be solved—to get clitoral reconstruction, a surgery whose efficacy has not been tested or verified in a scientific way, and has the explicit aim of being a sort of denegrification; where, in the U.K., vans with “In the U.K. illegally? Go home or face arrest,” emblazoned against a black background, glide through the streets; where Australia has announced that asylum seekers landing on its shores will never be allowed to settle in the mainland or become citizens but will be processed by and re-settled in Papua New Guinea, and while they wait are held in surrounding islands like Nauru and Manus island, where refugee camps are run in such terrible conditions that terror is visited on inhabitants daily and vulnerability is the only reality available; where, in Tel Aviv, a teen gang has been “serially hunting down, robbing, and beating non-Jewish Africans,” and anti-African attacks in Israel occur on such a regular basis as to be considered commonplace.
Americanah works as an intervention, a welcome caesura in a dirge of immigrant abjection often made inaudible or incomprehensible by the continuous popular urging that the world is post-race. It provides a measured story—not too violent to be unbearable, or too relentless as to be agonizing, or too horrific as to be unreadable—that serves a gentle reminder that racism is very much alive and growing stronger. "What does an African woman want in America?" (A review of “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)