Beyond Race and Hair: A Non-American Black Reading of Americanah



DELLI2I was late to the cohort of adorers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary talent. For a long time, I wallowed in a state of indecisive refusal to read anything by her. However last winter I picked up The Thing Around Your Neck in a used bookshop, and I had to grudgingly admit that I was slowly converting to an Adichie reader (though not an adorer yet). This summer, as I hang out with two adorable cats, I picked up Half of a Yellow Sun and began slowly falling into the novel. Like Ugwu, I walked into the novel and was determined to stay. Reveling in this transformative need to read everything Adichie I picked up Americanah. I expected to fall in love. I demanded it, but as I began reading the first few pages of Adichie’s most recent novel I realized that there was something different; something I am still trying to figure out.


What distinguishes Americanah from Adichie’s earlier novels (and collection of short stories) is not the style or the language; indeed Americanah is stylistically very Adichie. Hence it is not the lack of any particular thing that sets Americanah apart; rather it is the multitude of space, of time, of people, of relationships and of change which the characters inhibit and are propelled by. My reading of Americanah, therefore, focuses largely on the complex population of the novel which keeps expanding without overwhelming the reader.

Earlier in the summer as I watched and listened to the promotion of Americanah, I deduced that the central issue of the novel was the politics of hair, the African woman’s hair to be precise. Every time I saw Adichie (or someone else) describe the novel they seemed to suggest (at least to me) that the novel dealt mainly with race and the politics of hair. And it does. African women’s hair and its political and cultural role becomes a motif through which Adichie explores race and transnationality.

Yet what struck me from the beginning of the novel was the politics of space. Space as temporally embodied representations of race, migration and class. The African body, and the black body, along with its size and politics is a vital site of gender and racial politics, but also of spatial politics. Indeed, the many times that the central female character Ifemelu records changes in her body and other black women’s bodies point to the ever-expanding dominance of Euro-American standards of beauty, as well as a focus on the spaces that such bodies occupy.

What does this mean for the African who transgresses multiple boundaries? Adichie provides multiple answers to this through Ifemelu and her class mates—both through those who chose to migrate and those who stay in Nigeria. Their bodies become sites of physical and economic mobility across space and time. In the process these same bodies document the experiences of young Nigerian’s (read West Africans) from various economic backgrounds. Their experiences present a kaleidoscope of journeys from the African continent towards the world (read Europe and the Unites States). Ifemelu and her class mate through their personal odysseys are initiation into a world that has pre-conceived laws and practices on which spaces migrants must and/or should occupy, and which spaces migrants can (or cannot) lay claim to.

Like Ifemelu I could not ignore the comparison between the Euro-American space of the so-called developed world and those of migrant communities as well as those of the developing world (“third world”). The varying spaces within Americanah often becomes a determinant in the fate of a character, and Adichie’s characters must quickly learn the ropes or be spewed out with the wretched of the earth.Their experiences in Nigeria and those outside Nigeria (be it England or the United States) peels away, but at the same time adds a complexity to their characters. Change and growth is a constant in Americanah and mirrors the ever changing phases (and faces) of space and people.

I didn’t read Americanah for the love story, but it was one of the elements that both intrigued and puzzled me. I am not one who believes in love stories, and unfortunately Adichie did not convince me. What she did do however, was present female and male characters that are both simple yet complex. For that I am grateful.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print. 477 pages.


Author: Delali Kumavie//  


F. Delali Kumavie is a second year Doctoral student at Illinois State University studying English Literature and Culture. Her research unearths an alter(native) perspective through which women’s literary expressions reconfigure the spatial and temporal structures that affect women’s lives across various boundaries. Currently, she an AAUW (American Association of University Women) International Fellow. She is also an advisor to the Girdcenter. 

3 thoughts on “Beyond Race and Hair: A Non-American Black Reading of Americanah

  1. Pingback: Women and Gender Expectations – CCL 79 «

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