In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, the protagonist Ifemelu, born in Nigeria, has lived in New Jersey for thirteen years and has just completed a fellowship at Princeton University. The novel opens with Ifemelu describing her disconnection with the area of America she lives in, complaining that she has to take a bus out of town to find an African braiding salon. Ifemelu feels like an outsider in Princeton; she says, “It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton—the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids—and yet. . .she wondered why there was no place where she could braid her hair” (Adichie 3-4).
At the salon, Ifemelu criticizes the hairdressers from Mali and Senegal for catering too much to the white Americans and referring to “Africa” instead of identifying specific countries, but also for disapproving of her natural hair texture and pushing her to relax it. The hairdressers seemingly represent the larger portion of Africans living in America that try to assimilate into American culture and lose sight of their own, dressing and styling their hair like the white women. Adichie helps the reader to see that the hairdressers are not in a unique situation by including Ifemelu’s archetypal observations about the salon: “It would look, she was sure, like all the other African hair braiding salons she had known: they were in the part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings, and no white people, they displayed bright signboards with names like Aisha and Fatima African Hair Braiding, they had radiators that were too hot in the winter and air conditioners that did not cool in the summer” (Adichie 10-11). Ifemelu also barters with the owner about what she paid for her braids last month and “slip[s] into the coaxing tone of the proselytizer that she used whenever she was trying to convince other black women about the merits of wearing their hair natural” (Adichie 15); both of which also imply that she has been through the process before.
Ifemelu convinces the reader how the salon represents a larger archetype in African-American culture and that it was not a unique experience. Convincing the hairdresser of the merits of natural hair and trying to convince her of the ease of its maintenance in a practiced, persuasive manner helps the reader to see that this is the kind of conversation Ifemelu has frequently with other African women living in America. Ifemelu seems to use the smaller issue of hairstyle to try and persuade women to embrace their African roots and culture, especially through their appearance. Ifemelu’s journey to find somewhere to braid her hair allow her the opportunity to show the reader the problems that Ifemelu sees in the black women living in white America; either they’re too light-skinned to be “real” Africans or are trying to conform to American beauty ideals through themselves and their hairdressing clients. The growing natural hair movement has only recently become mainstream and popular in modern society as a way for women with textured hair to reclaim their heritage and culture, and reject white societal norms and the European standard of beauty.