An African immigrant view of America

The polite term for the black American citizens who used to be called Negroes is “African-American.”   This term is intended to put them on a par with white ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans.

However “African-Americans,” unlike white ethnics, are not immigrants, but the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors were all brought to this country before the Civil War, and most before the Revolution.

The USA now has a significant African immigrant population, who are the product of a different history than old-stock black Americans.   But the term “African-American” doesn’t really apply either, because it obscures the fact that Africa is not all one country.   African nations have national characters as distinct as Italy or Poland.

Recently I got a glimpse of the African immigrant experience by reading  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013).

“Americanah” is a Nigerian slang word for someone who has lived so long in the United States that they no longer fit into life in Nigeria.

Adichie’s heroine, Ifemelu, grows up in Nigeria, immigrates to the United States as a young woman and, after initial hardships, achieves success and fame.  But, after 13 years, decides to return to her native land.

Ifemelu, like her creator, is intelligent and outspoken, with many shrewd observations about American culture and racial attitudes.   I don’t find her likeable; that’s an observation, not a criticism.

The early chapters show the frustrations of Ifemelu and her educated, middle-class family, in life under the repressive Nigerian dictatorship.   She and her fiance, Obinze, who is handsome, sensitive and good in bed, dream of the United States as the big time where real things are happening—the way some small-town Americans in Kansas or Nebraska may think of New York and Los Angeles.

Ifemelu gets a scholarship to study at an American university, but quickly finds that the USA is not the paradise she imagined.

Her family taught her certain standards of good housekeeping, good grooming, good manners and good grammar, and she is taken aback by the slovenliness, permissiveness and vulgarity of the many Americans whose attitudes are formed by the mass entertainment and advertising media.

She has to struggle to earn a living and is sexually abused by a white employer.   This is so traumatic that she feels unable to keep in touch with Obinze.

This clears the way for her to begin a love affair with Curt, a handsome rich white jet-setter, who is good in bed.   Curt gets her a lucrative job in public relations, and her financial worries end.

Eventually she tires both of Curt and the PR job.   She starts a blog about racial attitudes in America, which is not only an overnight success, but an unexpected source of income that guarantees her financial independence.   She begins a love affair with Blaine, a handsome black intellectual idealist, who is good in bed.

Blaine, a Yale professor, spends time talking to an uneducated black security guard.  Ifemelu can’t bring herself to like him.   She and Blaine break up temporarily when the security guard is unjustly arrested, Blaine organizes a protest demonstration and she can’t be bothered to take.

She and Blaine are reunited by their common devotion to Barack Obama.   Some of Ifemelu’s shrewdist blog posts are about Obama and his campaign—for example, that black women like Obama because he married a woman with darker skin than his.

Her observations are about cultural signifiers—Michelle Obama’s hairdo, Hillary Clinton’s pants suit.   The hope that Obama would end the Iraq war and clean up Washington is thrown in as an afterthought.

Another of her blog posts is a response to a college student who asks how he, the son of welfare recipients in Appalachia, can have “white privilege”.   She proceeds to cite a list 14 advantages that he, as a white person, has compared to an equivalent black person, which range from not being worried about his race if he wants to join a prestigious social club to being able to buy flesh-colored Band-aids and underwear that are actually the color of his flesh.

All 14 items on her list are perfectly true.   What Ifemelu doesn’t note is that she enjoys a better starting point in life than any poor American, black or white, let alone the vast majority of Nigerians, and that the United States has offered her more than it offers the vast majority of Americans, black or white.

Ifemelu has little interest in African immigrants of a lower social class than hers.   She dislikes African cab drivers because they ask personal questions and make personal remarks.   It is only just before her return to Nigeria that she feels sympathy for and befriends her Senegalese hair braider.

One of the things I got from the novel, incidentally, was an appreciation of hair braiding—what a big deal it is and how much time, trouble and money go into it.

The most interesting character in the novel—to me—is Ifemelu’s Auntie Uju.  I would have wished to read more about her and less about Idemelu’s conversations with Blaine’s intellectual friends.

Auntie Uju is the mistress of a powerful Nigerian called “The General” and has a son, Diki, by him.   When the General dies, she flees Nigeria to escape the vengeance of the General’s wives.

She is a medical doctor, and expects to do well in the Unites States.   But she has to re-qualify by doing a residency and passing examinations, meanwhile surviving by taking multiple low-wage jobs.   When she does get her American M.D., she finds that white Americans don’t want to patronize a black physician.

She marries a Nigerian man in order to give her son a father, only to find that, even though he earns less than she does, he expects her to do all the cooking and cleaning.   Eventually she finds happiness in a relationship with a Ghanaian physician.   Then Dike, now a teenager, attempts suicide.

Ifemelu tells Anntie Uju that Dike’s problem is that she told him he wasn’t black (meaning that he is not part of the hip-hop gang culture) but she didn’t tell him what he was.   Ifemelu takes Dike back to Nigeria with her.   He loves life there, reconnects with his extended family and returns to the USA rejuvenated.

One of Ifemelu’s most endearing qualities is that she likes children, but, unlike many of the American characters, is willing and able to exercise adult authority over them.

Meanwhile the fiance, Obinze, who is infatuated with American culture, is unable to realize his dream of going to the USA.    Instead he tries his luck as an unauthorized immigrant in the United Kingdom, where Adichie gives us a look at another kind of African immigrant life.   Obinze is grossly exploited by the Angolans who give him his false documents and eventually deported back to Nigeria.

When Ifenelu returns to Nigeria, it seems like a different country or maybe she sees it through different eyes.   There is still great corruption and great inequality, but it seems like a country on the move, with great hopes for the future—something like the United States following the Civil War.

She gets a job on a magazine, doesn’t like it, quits and starts a new blog, which is better written and broader in sympathy than her American blog, but also is an overnight success and highly lucrative.   She reconnects with Obinze, who is now a millionaire property developer with a wife and two children.

He is still handsome, sensitive and good in bed, and they resume their love affair.   He hesitates to abandon his wife and children (which his friends consider “white people behavior”).  She calls him a coward, he gives in and the last passage of the novel is him appearing on Ifemelu’s doorstep and her inviting him in.   I am unable to believe that two such people would live happily ever after.

∞∞∞

I recommend the novel.   Its merits outweigh its wish-fulfillment fantasy aspects.   I especially like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sketches of life in Nigeria, her outsider’s view of life in the United States and her sketches of minor characters, American, Nigerian and other.   I thank Chaudry for calling it to my attention.

Below are videos of two TED talks given by Adichie, the first in 2009 and the second in 2012.

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