i really loved Americanah – let’s just get that out the way – best novel i have read in a long, long time.
Also it was written by a black African woman and so ticks a whole lot of the boxes of the majority of books i am trying to read these days – different gender, different colour, different country… tick, tick, tick.
Before i got started with the book, i came into contact with this quote via the Daily Maverick from the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Right? In fact there is a similar echo to that statement in Americanah which deserves a lot more thought and reflection:
‘Even his closest friend Okwudiba often told him how humble he was, and it irked him slightly because he wished Okwubida would see that to call him humble was to make rudeness normal.’
Although i just realised that is actually a quote from the book and comes from a time when the lead character Ifemelu is living a kind of double life between her blog where she writes what is real and true and gives poignant and challenging insight into race relations in Americaland, and in her speaking engagements where she learns early on that people were not wanting the same thing there:
‘That email, written in all capital letters, was a revelation. The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves. They did not want the content of her ideas; they merely wanted the gesture of her presence. They had not read her blog but had heard that she was a “leading blogger” about race. And so in the following weeks, as she gave more talks at companies and schools, she began to say what they wanted to hear, none of which she would ever write on her blog because he knew that the people who read her blog were not the same people who attended her diversity workshops.
During her talks she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud. ” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.’
Without giving too much away, Americanah is the story of a relationship between its lead character Ifemelu and Obinze who leave military-ruled Nigeria and spend fifteen years apart with Ifemelu navigating life and study and economics and race in Americaland before returning to Nigeria and each other and facing up to some very difficult relationship decisions.
The story begins in a hair salon as Ifemelu prepares for her first trip back home to Nigeria in 15 years and is told largely through a series of flashbacks following a number of different characters, the present day happenings in and around the hair salon, as well as an epilogue of sorts in terms of what happens back in Nigeria.
This was a story i read in a lot of thick chunks and very much looked forward to returning to every time i was away from it. At close to 500 pages it has got a lot of meat, but the story is so compelling and the writing so elegantly crafted that it really was such an easy and quick story to get through. i am very much looking forward to reading Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, both of which i’ve had people tell me are their favourite books of hers. So there’s better than this? i will have to read it to believe it.
The insight into life in both Nigeria and Americaland from an out-of-country black person [when it comes to Americaland] and a having-been-out-of-the-country-for-so-long local when she returns to Nigeria was deeply profound and invigorating. Adichie is very strong at forging relationships and expressing the different attitudes and subtext of the various characters she moulds so skillfully.
She also weaves in posts from Ifemelu’s fictitious blog to give a different voice on some of the aspects she is questioning like the construct of race she speaks into at the end of chapter 32:
So What’s The Deal?
They tell us race is an invention, that there is more genetic variation between two black people than there is between a black person and a white person. Then they tell us black people have a worse kind of breast cancer and get more fibroids. And white folk get cystic fibrosis and osteoporosis. So what’s the deal, doctors in the house? Is race an invention or not?
Adichie has what you feel is a firm grasp on the intricacies and nuances of the race, much of which you see in the smaller stories and interactions as they play out in the book, but typically more strongly in the regular blog posts she leaves at the end of many of the chapters:
Job Vacancy in America – National Arbiter in Chief of “Who is Racist”
In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed, but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be caled a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters. They are people with loving families, regular folk who pay taxes. Somebody needs to get the job of deciding who is racist and who isn’t. Or maybe it’s time to just scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute.
Another blog post of Ifemelu gets brought up at a dinner party and this one could be Racism 101 for white people and it feels unfortunate that once again, here it is a black person doing all the work of educating white people. But perhaps the hope is that if it is slipped in right in the middle of a seriously engaging novel, that the audience will learn a thing or two without feeling like they are being educated:
Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to a American Black Talking about Blackness
Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say “It’s just like when I…” You have suffered. Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black. Don’t be quick to find alternative explanations for what happened. Don’t say, “Oh, it’s not really race, it’s class. Oh, it’s not race, it’s gender. Oh, it’s not race, it’s the cookie monster.” You see, American Blacks actually don’t WANT it to be race. They would rather not have racist shit happen. So maybe when they say something is about race, it’s maybe because it actually is? Don’t say “I’m color-blind,” because if you are color-blind, then you need to see a doctor and it means that when a black man is shown on TV as a crime suspect in your neighborhood, all you see is a blurry purplish-grayish-creamish figure. Don’t say “We’re tired of talking about race” or “The only race is the human race.” American Blacks, too, are tired of talking about race. They wish they didn’t have to. But shit keeps happening. Don’t preface your response with “One of my best friends is black” because it makes no difference and nobody cares and you can have a black best friend and still do racist shit and it’s probably not true anyway, the “best” part, not the “friend” part. Don’t say your grandmother was Mexican so you can’t be racist (please click here for more on There Is No United League of the Oppressed). Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparent’s suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang. America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy – they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews – and one must conceded that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy – they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.
Don’t say “Oh, racism is over, slavery was so long ago.” We are talking about problems from the 1960s, not the 1860s. If you meet an elderly American black man from Alabama, he probably remembers when he had to step off the curb because a white person was walking past. I bought a dress from a vintage shop on eBay the other day, made in 1960, in perfect shape, and I wear it a lot. When the original owner wore it, black Americans could not vote because they were black. (And maybe the original owner was one of those women, in the famous sepia photographs, standing by in hordes outside schools shouting “Ape!” at young black children because they did not want them to go to school with their white young children.Where are those woman now? Do they sleep well? Do they think about shouting “Ape”?) Finally, don’t put on a Let’s Be Fair tone and say “But black people are racist too.” Because of course we’re all prejudiced (I can’t even stand some of my blood relatives, grasping, selfish folks), but racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks fon’t get treated like shit in upper-class African American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids they’re not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don’t try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don’t say they can’t use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered “aspirational” by the “mainstream.”
So after this listing of don’t, what’s the do? I’m not sure. Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.
Oh man, that is so good. Even if you just cut and past that passage and stick it on your Facebook wall so that all of your white friends can see it and have the opportunity to learn and maybe understand. These are lessons i have been slowly learning over the last three to five years all put out so clearly and obviously.
Let me stop there – i have two other quotes i want to share but perhaps i can get to them tomorrow. Just know that if you haven’t read it yet then Americanah is a really well-written novel where the story is enough to captivate you, but if you happen to be white and reading it, there are a few lessons to be gathered along the way.
Beautiful, stunning, with flawed characters which i find hard to read [i grew up with a more old-school Disney black-and-white mentality which this book definitely challenges and it is right and good and helpful and honest] but meaningful to reflect on in light of my own flaws and brokenness and bad decision-making that happens all too frequently.
Loved it loved it loved it, and next up is ‘Always Another Country’ by Sisonke Msimang which i have on good authority is also a really great book.
What are you busy reading? Have you tried to be intentional about reading people who don’t look, sound or think like you? What is one must-read book you would have me read in 2018? Please leave your answers in the comments.