A really important aspect of women in Nigeria is economic dependence. We see the same sort of marriage-for-money concept first with Aunty Uju and the General, then with Ranyinudo and Don (not married but dating), and learn how common the relationship is when Ranyinudo’s wedding planner friend Priye tells Ifemelu that the first rule of life in Lagos is “You do not marry the man you love. You marry the man who can best maintain you” (492). It’s interesting to consider Ranyinudo’s manipulation of Don, when she sneaks around him to date another guy that she’s interested in and appears to just be using him for his money. She feels no real emotional attachment to him but rather recognizes that with the way it is in Lagos, she needs to be dating someone to support her. She chooses to also date men she’s actually interested in behind Don’s back in search of love./
When Ifemelu writes an article about “young women in Lagos with Unknown Sources of Wealth,” Ranyinudo gets mad at her for writing an article about her without her permission. She calls out Ifemelu for having a similar situation with Curt in America, since he helped her to get a work visa and a job. I think it’s interesting to see Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt as an extension of this archetype, especially since she had such an intimate view into the downfalls of economic dependence shortly before moving to America. Aunty Uju served as an important lesson to Ifemelu about relying entirely on a man and not keeping anything for yourself. Ifemelu certainly came to America with no intent of relying on anyone else and making her own way in the world, but I think the reality of life as a foreigner on a student visa caught up with her and her desperation grew, eventually coming to a head with the tennis coach incident.
An important group to consider are Ifemelu’s coworkers at Zoe. Aunty Onenu is very rich and the girls speculate that she runs the magazine as a hobby and is only in it to get back at a friend of her that runs the competing magazine Glass. Even Doris, a supposedly independent women working for an all-female magazine, asks who Zemaye has started dating after she gets a nice new car. She assumes Zemaye did not pay for it herself and so it must have come from a new man in her life more capable of saving his money.
Last night we went to see Bill Nye speak at Drake University’s Knapp Center. As they lowered the lights for the show to begin, the dim blue light reflecting off thousands of pale faces in the corner of my eye caught my attention. I looked at the stands to my left and my right and noticed that everyone in this 12,000 seat stadium, save maybe a handful, were white. Now this probably wasn’t an accurate representation of Iowa’s demographics, as most of the people there were huge science nerds, but I feel it was pretty close. In the most recent Census I could find (2010), Iowa was 76.4% white. So I’m not really sure of the extent to which I can speak about any diversity issue. We just don’t have the diversity here that they do in Chicago or New York City or in Philadelphia and New Jersey as Ifemelu does. You’ve heard the joke that Waukee only has one black kid, and though obviously inaccurate, racially segregated schools are kind of still a thing (obviously de facto not de jure, meaning legally they aren’t but socially and culturally they are).
This becomes a real problem in the deep South and other places with a large schooling gap. Here in West Des Moines, the educational differences between a public school and a private school usually are chalked up to religion and recruitment opportunities, but the value of knowledge and opportunities are usually equitable. When I went down to visit my friend’s cousins in Georgia last summer, I was talking to them about their school system. One of the girls commented that her sorority had just accepted its first black member that year and it had been a big news story for them. I asked them about their elementary and high schools and they said that they had gone to private schools and their parents felt it was necessary for them to get an education of any value. Following court cases in the Civil Rights Era that forced Southern states to desegregate public schools, many just cut funding for the schools and white landowners’ taxes so they could use the money that would have gone towards the public schools to pay for their children’s private education. This disparity continues and for many white families in the South that value their children’s education, public school is just so bad that it isn’t an option. As a result, those families with lower incomes (typically black), attend the public schools, and those with higher incomes (typically white) attend private schools, and then because the private schools are so much better than the public schools, the rich white kids get better education then better jobs and get richer while the black students are unable to get a decent education or job and their families are trapped in poverty. [Obviously this is not always the case, there are definitely rich black people and poor white people.]
So I want to talk about what Shan says about her memoir, “Why do I have to transcend race? You know, like race is a brew best served mild, tempered with other liquids, otherwise white folk can’t swallow it,” as well as something that one of my classmates said in seminar today that Americanah is tempered with other plot lines and romance that aren’t about race, and how she felt that diminished the novel’s impact.
I feel like I understand what Shan is saying, but also I disagree. I think that part of what makes Americanah so impactful is that it’s so easy to relate to. I think Adichie smartly writes Ifemelu as someone that her readers can connect with and it humanizes her. Ifemelu has flaws; she’s depressed, she pushes those she loves away sometimes, she’s independent and smart and longs for something more but can’t place what it is. Ifemelu is in many ways more similar to her American peers in college than she is different, despite being Nigerian and experiencing a bit of culture shock. I think it’s important to write books and have TV shows and movies and comic books that are not about race, and just like any other form of media, but feature characters that aren’t white.
Now on the other hand, I don’t think this is what Shan is trying to do with her memoir. She wants to write specifically about how race has impacted her life and draw attention to the unspoken racism that is still rampant in society. I think this is a smart move for the purpose of Shan’s memoir, and she was rightfully upset that her editor wanted her to tone down the emphasis on race. However, I think Adichie writing Americanah wanted to do some of the same thing as Shan, and certain passages do emphasize race and how Ifemelu and Obinze and the people they interact with are affected by their race alone. I think other parts of the novel want to keep Ifemelu relatable to the white reader. I do think that Adichie waters down the racial statement that the novel could have made, but she does this intentionally to make the novel more appealing to white readers and to emphasize that not everything has to be about race, but sometimes it just is. Obviously being from Nigeria is not the only event in Ifemelu’s life.
I think this really circles back to white peoples’ question of what to do about diversity. For a long time, I think we’ve been taught (not even just with race, but with disability too especially) to ignore it. Pretend it isn’t there, or at least don’t vocalize that you’ve noticed. This is bad because usually we will just be quiet and awkward around non-white people. But then people swing too far the other way, and ask people “oh, where are you from?” or possibly worse/more racist things and fixate on their differences. I think we should embrace, but not dwell on, diversity. Be interested and aware that we all aren’t the same, but really, we should treat everyone equally.
So for this blog post I just wanted to discuss racism and prejudice in American society, building somewhat off of a Ted Talk I just watched called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race” by Speaker Jay Smooth. (If you want to check it out: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxHampshireCollege-Jay-Smooth)
Alright so at the part I’ve just paused the video on, Jay Smooth is discussing how we approach being a racist with the false dichotomy of “I am a racist” or “I am not a racist.” In actuality, everyone carries some ingrained prejudice or stereotypes, even if they do not consciously act on them or fully realize that they exist. I believe it is impossible to be entirely egalitarian in this day and age, even if you appear to be from others’ perspectives. Smooth was saying that when telling someone that they’ve said something offensive, it’s hard to keep the conversation focused on what they said and not who they are. Especially on the Internet, controversial comments often escalate quickly and people tend to jump to attacking someone’s character instead of focusing on the issue being discussed. Smooth said that you can’t just be a good person; it’s not a label that can just be constant and because you are a good person, that doesn’t mean you never say something that’s racially insensitive or biased. Rather, being good is a conscious act in the choices you make and is something that has to be worked towards and maintained.
I think a lot of what Smooth is saying really fits in with the discussion of growth and fixed mindsets that I was having in some of my classes last semester. The idea of growth and fixed mindsets are that a lot of people have a fixed mindset when approaching school or any other skill. Someone with a fixed mindset will say “Oh, I’m bad at math” and then not try to understand their lessons or assignments because they’re bad at it anyway, so why try? And then what we should all strive to have are growth mindsets. Someone with a growth mindset realizes that they may have to put in some extra effort in math, but they can learn to succeed and have room to grow. It’s really all about recognizing your own faults and then striving to be open minded and do your best.
I think we should learn to approach racism with a growth mindset. I think, as Ifemelu and Obinze learn in Americanah, white society wants to ignore race and is uncomfortable talking about it. But ignoring race and treating everyone as if they’re white marginalizes diversity and pushes everyone to conform to the same standards. I think that we should all recognize that each of us has inherent prejudices, just because it is impossible not to. We have prejudices for race in the same way we have prejudice for social class, bad parts of town, physical appearances such as weight, the way someone dresses or does their makeup, or even hair color. We have stereotypes for people from Texas or Australia or China, in the same way we have stereotypes for kids in show choir, cheerleading, or debate.
After Ifemelu goes to the tennis coach when she’s desperate for money, she spirals into depression because she has no one to talk to about it. She can’t tell Ginika or any of her other friends in America because doing so would be to admit how desperately she needs the money and how she’s “failed” as an America. Ifemelu feels as though she’s failed because every time she calls home, her father tells her about the many wonderful job opportunities in America (even though he’s never been there himself). The idea that America is the promised land of money and success is so ingrained in Ifemelu’s mind that because she hasn’t achieved any of that yet, she feels as if she’s the problem, not the society’s racism that makes her skin color unattractive to employers or her lack of a Social Security Card or a work visa. These factors leading up to the incident pushed Ifemelu to the point where she felt she had to essentially sell her body (or at least use it for things she was uncomfortable with) for money.
The actual incident itself (if you aren’t reading the book, a tennis coach is hiring an assistant to “help him relax,” Ifemelu initially refuses but later calls him back when she’s desperate for rent money. He touches Ifemelu and she lets him, but doesn’t really want to and isn’t comfortable with it, and she complies when he asks for sexual favors. Ifemelu is paid $100 and leaves), not quite rape and not quite prostitution, was incredibly degrading for Ifemelu. This is obviously the major stressor that sets off her depression. Afterwards, she loses contact with Obinze and shuts herself in her room. Right after the incident, Ifemelu calls her Aunty Uju and tells her she made 100 dollars at a man’s house that day and gets upset when Uju doesn’t ask her what she had to do for the money. This shouldn’t have shocked Ifemelu, since Uju slept with the General solely for his money and power for years, but it does. She herself is still in shock from the event and still feels very detached and disconnected to it, and needed someone to talk it out with.
Ifemelu and Obinze break up in probably the worst possible way. What Ifemelu really needed to do after the incident was to call Obinze and tell him about it. He was the only person who could have convinced her that everything was okay and he was who she really needed forgiveness from before she could forgive herself. I think a part of her feels that by going to the tennis coach, she cheated on Obinze, even though she was only in it for the money. The breakup must have been devastating for Obinze, since Ifemelu did not email or write letters back to him and he had no idea what happened or why they were no longer in touch. I don’t think the breakup gave either of them enough closure—when Ifemelu sees Kayode at the mall and he mentions Obinze, she becomes very upset at the thought of Obinze moving on with his life and to London without her knowledge. She holds a very childish belief that his life would stand still while she figured some stuff out, and Obinze would just be waiting for her when she was ready to pick up where they left off. This leaves Ifemelu and Obinze in a weird, unfinished relationship state, even though both of them have started seeing other people.
Ifemelu seems to have an okay relationship with her biological mother until she comes home one day and cuts off all of her hair outside in the yard. The cultural significance of losing one’s hair in Nigeria stems from some of the self esteem being placed largely on the hair, as seen in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when the captured tribesmen are forced to shave their heads in an act of great shame. Ifemelu’s mother’s hair loss represents her religious transition into a new, more devoted church, as well as her growing more distant from her daughter.Ifemelu’s mother uses God to justify behaviors, or blames the devil when bad things happen to her, hides behind her religion, starves herself in the name of her faith. Ifemelu greatly resents her mother’s timid behavior and vows not to be like her, acting out in church and speaking her mind. Ifemelu’s mother avoids uncomfortable situations and wants to sugarcoat things, which Ifemelu strives to be the opposite of and is part of why she starts her blog as a way of being open and clearly, publicly expressing her own opinions.
Dissatisfied with her own mother, a young Ifemelu turns to her father’s cousin Uju, who she calls Aunty Uju, as a maternal figure in her childhood. Uju brings her fashion magazines, teaches her about her menstrual period, and is truly honest with Ifemelu. Ifemelu admires Aunty Uju but as she gets involved with The General and becomes totally dependent on him, making no income of her own, Ifemelu grows disappointment in her. Ifemelu resents that Uju has not stood up for the values that Ifemelu associated her with in her childhood: independence and strength. As Ifemelu travels to America and sees how Uju settles to be with Bartholomew even though she doesn’t love him, and the way that Uju loses herself and her Nigerian culture in the process of assimilating into America, Ifemelu realizes that Uju is no longer who she wants to be when she grows up. A desire to not turn out like Uju influences Ifemelu’s decisions to not stay with Blaine and go in search of a more fulfilling relationship and to be conscious of maintaining her connections with Nigeria while she’s in America, and evaluating the cultural and racial customs on her blog, and to go back to Nigeria. I think that Ifemelu will be put into a similar relationship as Uju was with the General when she returns to Nigeria and finds Obinze married and with a family, and because she saw what happened for Uju when she got involved with a married man, will insist on Obinze getting a divorce before they become serious again. Ifemelu used to look up to her Aunty Uju but now is trying to learn from her mistakes.
Ifemelu, when applying for colleges, doesn’t care that she’s applying to mostly colleges in Philadelphia because to her, “America is America.” All of America is a magical, idealized version where anyone can get a job and no one lives in poverty. Ifemelu and her friends’ perception of America makes sense if you think about where anything they’ve heard about America has come from. Especially for Ifemelu and others living in lower classes, they have little to no access to phones or the internet, and TV programming has little variety. Students probably learn about America in their schooling and see pictures in textbooks and descriptions of a free speech-centered democracy. Ifemelu tells Dike how she’s watched Tom and Jerry and The Cosby Show over and over again until she can tell him how any episode will end. The American TV shows that they are watching in Nigeria show a stereotypical, middle to upper class America and that is how Nigerians come to perceive all of America.
America’s consumerism promotes the American brand and dream of how any immigrant could move to America and find a better life, similar to early colonial times when European immigrants and later within America during the Gold Rush. In all of the situations, once they got to America, it wasn’t what they expected. Pioneers moving west found very little gold and a lot of infertile land and lack of infrastructure and Africans traveling to America found poverty and a lack of opportunities. The dirty, crowded streets where Ifemelu finds Aunty Uju are nothing like the classy suburbs she’d seen on the Cosby Show. Ifemelu finds that America has changed her beloved Aunty Uju almost as drastically. She’s working three jobs and trying to pass her medical exams, and becomes easily irritated with Ifemelu for not knowing how things are done in America. Ifemelu takes solace in her young cousin Dike, teaching him division and babysitting him frequently. Ifemelu feels as though she is waiting still to find the real America, and that this hot, dusty version is just a stepping stone on her way. I predict that as this summer ends and she starts at Princeton, Ifemelu will start to appreciate more what America has to offer her. Her main motive for the move was the extensive university strikes at her college and all she really wants is a quality education. I worry that as Ifemelu’s American experience improves, she will stop babysitting for Uju and grow even more distant from her.
As Ifemelu goes off to college, she struggles to find a job and cannot pay her rent. She lives in a moldy apartment with roommates she doesn’t like and sinks so low as to provide a man with sexual favors in exchange for $100. She begins to sink into depression and loses contact with her relatives, friends, and Obinze. Ifemelu is, in many ways, worse off in America than she was in Nigeria. She enters into a depressive cycle after she can’t bring herself to tell Obinze about the incident with the tennis coach, and the longer she waits to tell him, the more difficult it becomes. By pushing Obinze away and deleting his emails, Ifemelu loses an important link to who she was in Nigeria and to her happiness.