As busy as I’ve been lately, I can’t miss the start of Women’s History Month. My reading list for this month is all-female, including among others George Eliot, Sandra Cisneros and Marina Tsvetaeva.
I first met Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche when I read Purple Hibiscus about seven years ago. I was 13 and I couldn’t really grasp the deeper meaning of the novel, but I could see that the world described was so different from my own. Nevertheless, I could understand the struggles and I could enjoy the little happy things. I couldn’t relate, but the words made me understand. And I think that is the power of Adiche’s storytelling.
I discovered her again, in Americanah. This time, knowing a lot more about race but also being aware of how little I actually know. Because race it’s not just about being racist or not. Not being racist doesn’t make me feel better about the world when racism still exists. It doesn’t help me escape my own privilege – I’m damn privileged and my only hope is that I can be the Special White Friend Adiche describes in her novel:
One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that one friend who you don’t have to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends do not only get it, but also have great bullshit detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and school while black people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they are white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card”. Nobody quite knows what this means.
And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it.
Americanah tells the story of a Nigerian woman that’s been living in America for 13 years and decides to move back in Nigeria. Thus, her life has three parts: before going to America, in America, and after leaving America. If you really want to think about the plot as being the most relevant bit of this book, it is a love story. For me, it wasn’t. The focus was never really on the love story itself or on Ifemelu’s (the main character) lover, Obinze. Only a few chapters are narrated from his perspective and they exist mainly for the plot and not to help to build the character. That can be a literary fault, indeed, but I didn’t really mind it. I didn’t need the drive you usually get from a love story to be mesmerized by Adiche’s great writing.
Being a book about love and about race, the most fascinating parts of it were when these two themes collide. We keep talking about race on a macrolevel i.e. race and society, but how does race affect the more intimate parts of our lives i.e. race and relationships?
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would’ve been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberals dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.
The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.
In America, Ifemelu starts writing an anonymous blog about her experiences and observations as a Non-American Black in America (NBA). Her voice is sharp and echoes in the minds of the readers that understand or want to understand, while the people that are still in denial about some race issues find her posts disturbing. The popularity of her blog makes her rapidly a must in any workshop and event about diversity in general and race in particular. But she soon finds out that she’s not invited there to speak her mind – people hate it when their ways are criticized. They just want a pat on the back and a you’re doing great, buddy.
The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change, but to leave people feeling good about themselves. (…) During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
Remember this whenever you feel proud of how far we’ve come. Whatever we do to reduce racism, there’s always a lot more before eradicating it, and that seems to be really far.
I cannot just leave you without quoting a description of Ifemelu’s love. Her love is, of course, a description of herself, as love allows us to be ourselves.
If she was considering coming back to Nigeria, then it meant she was no longer with the black American. But she might be bringing him with her; she was after all the kind of woman who would make a man easily uproot his life, the kind who, because she did not expect or ask for certainty, made a certain kind of sureness become possible. When she held his hand during their campus days, she would squeeze until both palms became slick with sweat, and she would say, teasing, “Just in case this is the last time we hold hands, let’s really hold hands. Because a motorcycle or a car can kill us now, or I might see the real man of my dreams down the street and leave you or you might see the real woman of your dreams and leave me.”
I can’t find the right ending line for this book review. Because, truth be told, I’m not nearly finished with it. I talked to all my friends about it for the last couple of days and there are still so many aspects I missed. Sometimes, when reading about discrimination, you tend to think that this is not about you; you’re great, you’re inclusive, you watch the way you speak and treat people and would never discriminate – is racism still a thing? Well, it clearly is, and this book is amazing because it makes you realize you are part of the problem so you need to be part of the solution.