I’ve been a busy bee reading this summer on all my travels to this date. But probably the best book I’ve read so far is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had just heard of Adichie a few days before when my daughter bought a book of her popular Ted talk called “We Should All be Feminists.” I watched her talk and was intrigued by this outspoken young woman. Then a favorite young adult friend posted an Instagram photo of the book Americanah and said how much she liked it. I happened to be staying above a bookstore at Rosemary Beach and promptly went downstairs the next morning and bought the book and took it to the beach with me. Not exactly beach reading, but the book became waterlogged and salty during the next two days on the sand. I couldn’t stop reading. The novel weaves both an epic love story of two young Nigerians and insightful social commentary on being black in America.
I was transported far from the beaches of South Walton to Lagos and Princeton – the two worlds of Ifemelu, the young woman who becomes a well-regarded blogger on race in America only to realize the limitations of her American freedom. The life of an undocumented alien in London contrasted with that of a wealthy successful Nigerian man encompasses the story of her lover Obinze. Their paths come together in middle school in Lagos and later depart and converge as the story unfolds. Ifemelu’s commentary on race through her blog is interspersed with the very gripping story of the two young lovers. In this novel, Adichie holds nothing back in her thoughts on race and class and immigration through the fictional Ifemelu’s blog posts. Here’s an example:
As I have said before, I read novels because they help shine a light on a way of life that I could never understand unless I have experienced it. I want to understand the world and get insight into other people’s reality. This is a love story, which has a universal appeal and helps me to see what it’s like to be a non-American black and an immigrant. Adichie is an important writer who needs to be read and heard.
In the novel, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them…have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race…”
I think Adichie makes it clear that this novel is about race. In the fictional blog, the character Ifemelu says, “In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.”
After last week’s hideous shooting in Charleston, conservatives first labeled the shootings as anti-Christian, serial killings, everything but what they were. Until finally the racial motivations for Dylann Roof entering Emanuel AME church and killing nine black people after watching them in a Bible study were clear: He is racist and hoped to start a racial war. Now everyone wants to take down the Confederate flags. That definitely needs to happen, but don’t we need to go many steps further? We need to sit down with our black brothers and sisters and understand the realities of what they face. Black mothers fearing their sons will be unjustly accused of crimes. Young black men are being shot and innocent young black women are being thrown to the ground at a pool party. Are you watching all this? We are racist in these big ways and also in more subtle ways. This madness must stop, but things will only change if we can name the evil lurking in our society. Adichie helps do this in her brilliant book. I hope she will keep speaking the truth in the darkness.