Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2014. 978-0-307-45592-5 (pbk.)
What better time to read a book about the character of America than in a time when many of us no longer recognize our own country? While a great deal of the action in Americanah takes place in Nigeria, and both main characters are Nigerian, the third character in the story is America itself. What does it mean to be an American, an immigrant in America, a black person in America, a woman in America?
Ifemelu leaves Nigeria during yet another academic strike, unable to complete her degree at home. She comes to Princeton, where she struggles to understand race dynamics and find a job — any job — to pay for her rent. She spends time with other African ex-pats, white Americans, and African Americans, learning to negotiate the strange racial and class structure of American society.
Not long before starting this novel, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Written as a letter to his son, Coates tries to explain what it is like being a black man in America. Both books gave me, a white woman, a new perspective on my own country. There are so many subtle ways that racism rears its head that are easy to overlook if you happen to have been born with light skin.
I fear that such occurrences will become more frequent and more ugly, given the character of the people poised to take over the reins of government. We must all be more vigilant, not only of others, but of our own thoughts and actions, of the things we may do without thinking.
One of my favorite parts of Americanah was the scene where Ifemelu and her American friends are watching the 2008 presidential election unfold in real time. How much hope and excitement and promise we all felt then! How limitless the future seemed, when a dark-skinned man became our president. Surely, we thought, things are getting better. Surely, the darkness will fade. How poignant it is to read of this hope just days before Barack Obama leaves office, as our nation teeters on the brink of plunging into darkness.