I’m very low-key about my hair. I get it cut maybe twice a year. I don’t colour it and I rarely use product in it. I go to the drug store and I buy whatever shampoo and conditioner is on sale. I’ve never given much thought to the privilege this represents.
There is an eye-opening scene in Americanah where one of the main characters, Ifemelu, is told to straighten her hair for a job interview in the United States. She does so, using relaxers, and soon her hair begins to fall out due to damage. Later on in the book, the regime she uses to keep her hair natural is described. I’d never really thought about why it is that I can go to a drug store and buy cheap shampoo and not think about it. That shampoo is made for hair like mine because it’s targeted to a market that assumes most people have hair like mine. Or if they don’t, that they should aspire to it. (By which I mean, not my hair in particular because I don’t think there’s anything super special about it, but hair that is straight.) In short, the hair of a white person. Ifemelu is African and she has naturally kinky hair. The drugstore is full of products that don’t work for her. From shampoo to foundation to “nude” band-aids that don’t match her skin colour. This is what is meant by racial privilege in America.
Americanah presents a perspective I haven’t read before. But I’m coming to expect that from Adichie, whose writing I’ve been greatly enjoying this year. Ifemelu states that she never felt black until she left Africa, until she moved to the United States where being black suddenly became a part of her identity.
The novel divides between Ifemelu and Obinze, beginning in high school when they meet and fall in love. Obinze is quiet, smart, the son of a professor. Ifemelu is stubborn, a little brash, the daughter of a radically religious mother and a father long unemployed for his refusal to call his boss, “Mummy”. Their connection is powerful and immediate. Like any young people, they make plans for their future together. But they are living in an unsteady climate and country. Their time at university together is continually disrupted by strikes. When Ifemelu has the chance to move to the United States, they decide together that she must take it and Obinze will join her as soon as he can.
For many reasons, not least of all a post-9/11 America, Obinze never gets his visa and they are never reunited in the U.S. We follow Ifemelu’s transition to life in America. Poverty, success, relationships. We follow Obinze’s struggle in Nigeria, his attempt at an undocumented life in England, his later successes.
This is an immensely readable book. While it deals with modern day Nigeria, racial identity, and immigration in Western countries, it really is a book about relationships. Adichie skillfully offers a perspective that many Westerners may not be familiar with and she does it in such a deceptively simple manner that you might think you’re just reading another good novel.