In Americanah, the two main characters are modern-day Nigerians: Ifemelu and her (one true) love, Obinze. Middle-class and educated, they have decided to migrate abroad, not for reasons of political conflict or poverty, but for the lack of foresight of their country's progressiveness, "the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness." Futures are brighter, success quicker in the other countries. Obinze immigrates to Britain, Infemelu to the US. In the novel, race and differential social conventions between the three countries are examined, weaving in the love story of Ifemelu and Obinze over the course of two decades.
Adichie's characters as immigrants experience various levels of inequality and road-blocks, hindered not only by the stereotypical culture and race differences, but the inability to effectively resolve them. Obinze struggles with the usual escalating illegal trappings of the undocumented immigrant; for my own preference, I'll just focus on the main character, Infemelu, from here on.
Adichie's novel is as much about race perceptions in the West, as it is about the disparateness within and between races, measured to be as distant as the two continents. The story primarily follows the life of Ifemelu, as a Nigerian woman whose journey to America dims her dreams and dissolves her identity. Infemelu discovers that racism, as she experiences it, is multi-dimensional: White-race/Black-race; American-Black/ Non-American-Black; White-woman/Black-woman.
I did not think of myself as black, I only became black when I came to America.
Infemelu is sharply awakened to the reality that in America, her "blackness" is not invisible, it goes noticed and is reacted to, no matter who you are or where you're from. She realizes that survival in America requires her to climb the 'racial hierarchy', assimilate, change her image: her hair, manner of speech, her accent, her way of dress. Ifemelu's pursuit of the immigrant dream follows a crooked path with many challenges and pitfalls for a Non-American Black woman; nonetheless, she finds her voice in blogging: a thing that is as natural to her as her kinky roots.
To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America You Are Black, Baby
Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't "black" in your own country? You're in America now...So you're black, baby. And here's the deal with becoming black: You must show that you are offended when such words as "watermelon" or "tar baby" are used in jokes, even if you don't know what the hell is being talked about- and since you are a Non-American Black, the chances are that you don't know.
Racism didn't change too much for Infemelu over many years; it only further obscured the immigrant dream. Ifemelu's journey to the West eventually turns full circle to where her natural roots sprang, but returning with her is the rediscovery of her authenticity - a theme that basically drives Adichie's female protagonists- to be free of coercion and artificiality, to hold fast to her independence, the oneness of being woman, intelligent, black and beautiful - inside and out, roots and all.
Americanah, although bogged down at times with strained rhetoric, holds the reader's attention with well- balanced shifting themes and geographic hopping, with Adichie's keen observations and humor, making this quite hefty work when generously paced, a delightful if not provocative read.