Sunday, March 8, 2015

Americanah, So, What are we Talking About When We Talk About Race?

Next week I'll be volunteering my time at the South County Library where I used to work by facilitating a discussion of one of my favorite books of 2013. "Americanah," by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, came to me via Library Journal long before it's publication date. I went out on a limb for this novel, saying that it was a must-read for anyone still living under the illusion that we are a post-racial society. The book went on to win a plethora of prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah.jpeg
Yesterday I sat and watched live streaming of the events in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. If you didn't learn about our country's very own "bloody Sunday" in school, you can rent or borrow the outstanding film "Selma," which will give you an extraordinary mix of live footage and actor's re-enactments. The hatred, fear, and anger on the faces of the police and the white citizens of Selma are terrifying to witness. The courage of Martin Luther King and all who came to march with him that day in non-violent protest for the right to vote unimpeded is mind boggling.
President Obama, in one of the most impassioned, powerful speeches of his presidency, explained why we must never forget. That, yes, things have changed tremendously in the past fifty years BUT... and that's a big but...we have a long, long way to go.
Adichie, using humor, nuance, and sly innuendo, says much the same thing. I can't wait to hear how my group of deep readers will respond to her observations. As a Nigerian, she has often said in interviews, that she never realized that she was black until she came to America. Think about that. She tells the story of her alter-ego, Ifemelu, who landed a coveted student visa to get to the United States and, for thirteen years, made it her home.
She struggled in student housing, scrabbled to get a decent job, earned a degree, and became a sought after blogger and public speaker lecturing HR departments about race. The irony is, of course, that she is not an American black and she doesn't own or even understand the dark history that haunts American blacks.
But she was willing to learn through her various relationships, one long term affair with a wealthy white man, Curt, who loved her unconditionally, and another with an American black man, Blaine, who could not comprehend that she did not, could not, take offense at every slight, imagined or not, that he encountered as a professor at Yale. In a very funny scene, she calls home to tell her parents that she may be getting married to Blaine and, admitting that he is an American black, they lament, "are there not enough Nigerian men in America?"
Using the social interactions among the friends Ifemelu makes during her time in the states, Adichie is able to point out the uncomfortable contradictions in our (Americans) thoughts about race. Blaine and Ifemelu work tirelessly for the Obama presidential campaign and Adichie's description of the evening when the first announcer declared Barack Hussein Obama the next president of the United States is spot on. Still, Ifemelu stands back and notices how so many people working the room just dust their palms together in a way that says, "OK, we crossed that hurdle, we're no longer a racist country." Hmmmmm. Tell that to Trayvon Martin's family.
Adichie is a gifted writer. Her novel "Half of a Yellow Sun," is a heartbreaking love story underpinned with the struggle of the Biafran War. It was made into a less than stellar film. Now, "Americanah" will also be rewritten by Hollywood and I worry about the outcome. A writer can, (and she does) bring the reader along with clever word choices, utilizing the ambiguity of the English language to highlight cultural and racial differences. I'm not sure how well this book will translate into film, but there's no doubt that huge swaths of it will have to be left out. Please grab a copy, now out in paperback, and read it before you go to the movies. It may be uncomfortable but you'll see yourself in a whole new light.

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