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How Hair and Power Are Interwoven in "Americanah"

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Words: 1162 |

Pages: 2.5|

6 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1162|Pages: 2.5|6 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Four braids wrap around the cover of Americanah, binding the stories and experiences of race within. Stories of realising one’s own race and how it changes your mobility in different places. Stories of understanding power. In Americanah, Adichie uses hair as a metaphor for race and the level of power it affords, challenging her intended audience of white, Western liberals’ assumptions about race and the depth at which racial inequality is entrenched within America today.

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Americanah, a story of modern conceptions of race, insightfully begins with a journey from Princeton University to a Trenton hair salon, where the playing out of power will occur throughout the narrative. Adichie makes clear the distance, literally and metaphorically, between the “clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace” (3) with very few other black people, and the neighbourhood she can get her hair done.

This Adichie describes in stark contrast: “the part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings, and no white people” (10). Within the first ten pages, Adichie has established opposing worlds of race and correlated power. This is the primary setting where hair, and the power it symbolizes, “happens.” What occurs here will appropriately be interspersed throughout the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze’s experiences in nations Adichie portrays as places where white privilege and power dictates society. Within the salon, the audience sees the same power dynamics that occur in the protagonists’ stories.

Occurring simultaneously are stories of African immigrants attempting to integrate into Western society, all who come from different countries and may even speak different languages, for example Mariama’s interspersed French dialogue. Aisha, like Obinze, is desperate to procure citizenship through marriage. There is also a level of respect afforded to those the most Americanized, seen in Ifemelu’s offense when Aisha assumes she has not lived in America long, and Aisha’s respectful reaction when Ifemulu tells her it has been fifteen years (19).

These exchanges purvey a deeply entrenched ideal of power that is associated with America and its “people.” Adichie shows us this ideal integrated in white privilege with Kelsey’s notable appearance. The moment the “young white woman came in” (232), the power dynamic of the room shifted. The owner Mariama, who had casually greeted Ifemulu and gave her little attention, suddenly “wip[ed] her hands over and over in front of her shorts” and “smiled an overly eager smile” (232). The white-skinned Kelsey is given respect and power the moment she steps foot on the setting where American race issues are represented. Kelsey easily accepts and fills the role she unconsciously does in her society, having the power and privilege of being white. She is without question given and takes a voice over the room, dominating the conversation.

Quick to condescend, Kelsey assumes that Mariama “couldn’t even have this business back in [her] country” (232), that her children would have a worse life in Mariama’s home country Mali, as well as questions its social progress by asking if women are allowed to vote. Kelsey represents the assumptions that those in power are able to make, following the dialogue of the Afropolitan novels that Adichie aims to criticize.

These narratives stereotype African characters as those with little agency who look to Western culture for mobility and stability (Sayers). Kelsey affirms this by touting novel Bend in the River, which from her social position she is able to confidently label as a truthful representation of modern Africa, even when speaking to Ifemelu, who succinctly criticizes this Afropolitan novel. Adichie writes: She did not think the novel was about Africa at all.

It was about Europe, or the longing for Europe, about the battered self-image of an Indian man born in Africa, who felt so wounded, so diminished, by not having been born European, a member of a race which he had elevated for their ability to create, that he turned his imagined personal insufficiencies into an impatient contempt for Africa; in his knowing haughty attitude to the African, he could become, even if only fleetingly, a European. (233-234)

It is these exact assumptions of Kelsey and Afropolitan narratives that Adichie wishes to draw out in her intended audience. Ifemelu “recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you came from America was” (233). Americanah does not read as a story written for Nigerians or even Africans, but as one for white, liberal Westerners criticized in this passage, who are interested and against racism yet fail to see its reality from their place of privilege.

Misunderstandings and assumptions of this audience are seen in Kelsey’s last moments in the salon, when she is shocked to discover that hair is used for braiding: “[o]h my God. So that’s how it’s done. I used to think African-American women with braided hair had such full hair!” Not only is she assuming that all black women are African-American, but she is apparently blind the reality of braided hair, which in this story represents the natural, “God-given” symbol of race versus relaxed hair.

Kelsey non-surprisingly sticks to her own hair, appropriating a piece of black culture but symbolically refusing to acknowledge or take on the loss of power it provokes in America. Upon Kelsey leaving the salon, Ifemelu remembers Curt, another symbol of white privilege, with whom she worked out the loss of power associated with her African hair. Following the advice of Americanized Aunt Uju and Ruth, Ifemelu chemically relaxes her hair and obtains the “white-girl swing” (251) that, Adichie implies, wins her a job.

The chemically relaxation is a symbol of the shedding of her natural African race to take on a standard of stereotypical American white beauty, and through it clearly gaining power. In a response to Ifemelu’s struggle with her hair, Curt, like Kelsey, does “not see why she should be so upset but was better off not saying so” (259), thus reinforcing Adichie’s criticism of white audiences through the portrayal of her white characters of privilege and power.

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Ifemelu asks in her blog, “So is it me or is that the perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair” (367). Adichie, with astounding clarity and creativity, has answered this query. Those with “American” hair are granted power, and the closer non-whites can get to mimicking that appearance, the more they may acquire themselves. People today, especially Americanah’s target audience of privileged readers, are largely blind to modern racism. Therefore, Adichie substitutes skin colour for hair to illustrate that while audiences may believe their own “colourblindness,” prejudices continue to be deeply entrenched in America today.

Works Cited

  1. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2014.
  2. Sayers, Jentery. “Americanah.” English 429C, University of Victoria, Victoria. 23 March 2017.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

How Hair and Power Are Interwoven in “Americanah”. (2018, Jun 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/braiding-the-strands-of-culture-interweaving-hair-and-power-in-adichies-americanah/
“How Hair and Power Are Interwoven in “Americanah”.” GradesFixer, 15 Jun. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/braiding-the-strands-of-culture-interweaving-hair-and-power-in-adichies-americanah/
How Hair and Power Are Interwoven in “Americanah”. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/braiding-the-strands-of-culture-interweaving-hair-and-power-in-adichies-americanah/> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
How Hair and Power Are Interwoven in “Americanah” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Jun 15 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/braiding-the-strands-of-culture-interweaving-hair-and-power-in-adichies-americanah/
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