Chimamanda Adichie Tackles Self Identity in Americanah
By: Whitney McArthur
“You know we live in an ass-licking economy. The biggest problem is that there are too many qualified people who are not where they are because they won’t lick anybody’s ass, or they don’t know which ass to lick or they don’t even know how to lick ass.” – Aunty Uju, page 93 of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I walk into the Starbucks on Cherry Hill Road to find Ms. Nadia Ansong, founder of Cover Book Club, and another friend proudly donning a Towson Tigers hoodie and I immediately feel comfortable. Both women have welcoming faces and their voices only heighten their warmth. For the discussion we are about to have, their warmth and kindness is required. We are about to partake in an open discussion about the social trials we go through, from identifying as “black” or “African-American” in America to the differences between Africa and America’s sex cultures. What is taboo and what is not? How are we disregarded as people because of the color of our skin? How much black is too much black in a racially charged classroom?
We touched on each topic with a learned diplomacy that came from simply being taught how to respect others. That is the only way the conversation or any conversation between diverse groups of people can work: by each member engaging in that discourse respectfully. This means shutting your mouth, fixing your face, and actively listening to opinions that differ from your own. Because even though all six of us were young, black, educated, beautiful women, we were also hailing from vastly different upbringings. Some were raised in America while some were still in Africa. Being in America now, we all face the same problems, but our differences brought a better knowledge to the table of how to face them. I left Starbucks with a broader understanding of how to be black in America.
The discussion kicks off with introductions. Where are we from? What are our names? How do we identify ourselves? Answering these questions immediately triggers our venting of how our individuality, our individual histories are disregarded automatically. Whether we were born in Ghana, Nigeria, or America, we are black. Whether she is Liberian, Ghanaian, or Nigerian, here she is African. Now that she is here, she must decide whether it is offensive to herself or others to identify as African or African-American. And regardless of the diversity present in one’s history, in America one is identified by the color of his or her skin. And this is across the board with all races (so that I may appear racially inclusive). So the question then becomes: how do I identify with a country that does not care about how I identify myself? Where do I belong as I’m constantly reminded of how much I do not fit?
The main character, Ifemelu, of this national bestseller, Americanah, deals with these questions and many more as she tries to maintain her Nigerian upbringing while simultaneously adapting to American culture. She has never been black before. The reality of her skin in this new country is forced upon her through what is suddenly culturally and socially acceptable by her peers, her employers, her family members and even her random hairdressers. In regards to the learned art of being disregarded in America, one of the first lessons Ifemelu receives is of how her Aunty Uju allows people to mispronounce her name. She goes as far as to repeat the mispronunciation throughout the conversation instead of correct it. This bothers Ifemelu, how readily her Aunty now denies herself. And this is one of her first lessons of how to be what is expected instead of herself.
This book about the maintenance and continuous quest for identity helps us in our retrospective views of how we have grown into the women we claim to be. How exactly do we define ourselves with respect to our culture, our parents, our sanity, and our future? How exactly do we define the Other and how do these definitions hinder making connections as human beings?
In our discussion, each question brings us back to the main issue of the lack of humanity present in our society: the lack of the ability to be social, communicate, listen, and understand one another. Being black, we are constantly judged by how black we should be and how black we are not. We are given the Others’ reflections of how black they wish to see us and expected to fit into their wonderful dark fantasies. It is a scary thing how easy it is to lose one’s self. It is an even scarier thing to not be taught how to be one’s self. Because then, who are you looking for to provide examples of who you are? And who is defining you?
Yes, I am named after Whitney Houston. You may sing any song of your choosing if you ever meet me. I have a degree in Theatre Arts. Books are my main squeeze. And I’m great at staring contests…even when you’re not staring back.