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The Struggle of Shaping an African American’s Identity: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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It is a common phenomenon in all countries around the world for a person to be quickly identified as not part of or different from their community, society, or their. They would be immediately labeled as an “outcast” creating a dangerous image in their brains, for example, most of them enter a country illegally, taking part in the crime, therefore, influencing society to want certain types of people surrounding them. Immigration remains a perpetual action that people take part in all over the world. Many people with different cultural backgrounds immigrate to the countries that they desire for various reasons such as better education and schooling, improving job qualifications, access to more demanding business opportunities, and overall mainly for the betterment of their lives and seeking brighter futures. However, immigration has not always been a delightful process due to discrimination of the immigrants by the society that they have moved into. Migrants are not always welcomed into a foreign society making them feel like outcasts and therefore informing struggle in finding acceptance in their new home. The struggle for immigrants in finding a place to call home in their new residing country is a painful process as the discrimination that began in the 1800s towards immigrants perhaps still continues today. Such challenges that rise from different dressing styles or accents, cultural backgrounds, and even physical appearance (race) are told in stories and experiences by authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whereby in an interview she stated that she was one of the many immigrants who had to change her physical appearances like her hair for example and her accent, to fit into what was elegant to society in America and Jhumpa Lahiri who put herself in the shoes of the Bengali couple in her novel “The namesake” who immigrated to America and described the struggles and hardships of forming a life outside of everything they are accustomed to and struggle their way to acceptance in society merely because of errors in names, and the inability of others to accept a different accent and culture in their spaces. America was and still is one of the many countries that have propelled immigration attracting many immigrants to settle and grow there. However, not all immigrants were welcomed by society leaving them no choice but to change their lifestyle and physical appearance in order to blend in. Many immigrants who had settled in America, for instance, would trust in the “American Dream” forcing them to believe that the government would protect each person’s opportunity to pursue their own idea of happiness. It is well known that the dream today has drifted from that envisioned.

“Americanah” a contemporary novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie exposes in depth, the struggles of a Nigerian woman Ifemelu living in the United States and a Nigerian man Obinze living in the UK through the difficulties and hardships that a new generation of African immigrants face while they build their life in their new homes. Throughout the course of the book many characters are introduced, all with different and intricate personalities. The character Ifemelu, who is the protagonist in the novel, not only was an intellectual character but also showed how Ifemelu as a character is able to overcome challenges while being an immigrant and develop into a strong voice of reason for the rest of the immigrants who are struggling to build their lives. This is a reflection of the challenging processes of cultural adaptation and identity construction that African immigrants have to endure while trying to become part of the society that they have chosen to live in. Obinze is an important member in Ifemelu as her lover and a person that she can relate to due to his experiences in enduring difficult conditions as a black. From the moment we meet Ifemelu and Obinze we perceive powerful characters whose situations while growing up make their identity agreeably linked to racial and national identity, which are then affected by external cultural forces. Living in Nigeria these two characters were never perceived as black or looked at by color until they moved into a regenerative environment in which their color and ethnicity control their lives making them stand out substantially in the American Society’s eyes. Other characters such as Aunty Uju and Ifemelu’s hairdresser have completely transformed into “Americans” as almost everything about them from dressing style to accent has changed to look and speak like their fellow non-immigrants. Therefore Adichie exposes different factors that determine the way of life of an immigrant through their differences in culture and fear of not being accepted in such a society. Through this essay I will explore Chimamanda’s characterization of Ifemelu by analyzing Ifemelu’s blogs and direct experiences to reveal her perception that Immigrants will struggle and face many hardships and may have to change or fight for acceptance in their adopted countries, leading me to the following research question: How has Adichie used characterization in her novel “Americanah” to develop the struggle for an identity for African immigrants?

In choosing to discuss characterization, it will allow this essay to explore and analyze in depth the true struggles and experiences of an immigrant like the author Chimamanda herself as she voices her true feelings and opinions through the character Ifemelu and how she struggles to adapt to change as an immigrant while facing many hardships in allowing her true identity to be accepted.

It is commonly known that people usually take upon the decision to migrate for the betterment of their lives in terms of acquiring advanced life skills and pursuing high levels of education. This is highlighted in countries such as the US or UK where “Young people move in order to get better jobs or improve their qualifications, including their language skills” (EMBRACE). Due to the immigrants being exposed to a different society, many suffered uncalled racism, which lead to a struggle of building an identity as an immigrant. Ifemelu had been given the precious opportunity to gain a higher level of education in America, which in itself carries much significance and pride to a majority of Africans and Nigerians. As Ifemelu was becoming more exposed to the society of America, it seemed as if she was acquiring and understanding what is supposed to be her “real” identity by being culturally and racially different from the people that surrounded her. Her realization is reckoned when she states in one of her blogs “ I came from a country were a race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America”. This statement illustrates that many people who migrate would not identify themselves by color or more specifically as “black” until they are fully convinced by people from a different society from their own, that they are not recognized as one of “them” but see differently in the eyes of the new society, bringing out their insecurities and wishing people could perceive them as more than just their physical appearance and look deeper into their personalities. Additionally,

In writing emotive, yet strongly opinioned blogs, Adichie through Ifemelu’s character is able to explore how Americans create racial hierarchy and several divisions between ethnic groups, therefore, recognizing the struggle of creating an identity as an outsider in one’s community. To emphasize more on the fact that Ifemelu was highly affected by being judged physically by appearance, color, culture, and even accent her controversial Blogs one titled “ To my fellow American blacks: in America, you are Black, baby” gave her a space to freely express the opinions on “race” in a very straightforward manner. Blogs acted as a free space allowing Item to confide her feelings honestly without being judged by society and also acting as a way of helping those who were undergoing the same bitter-sweet familiarities as her as an immigrant. The harsh realization that people would continue to judge Ifemelu through her physical appearance made her write a punitive response to that specific feeling through the blog “ Dear non-American blacks, Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care” underlining the degree to which the greatness of her personal qualities have been shadowed by her “race” therefore not allowing her to fully expose her true identity to the society and heavily personifying self-consciousness and fear that affects almost every immigrant as they must meet the American standards of society to be a part of it and recognized not as an outsider which is something an immigrant experiences daily. Adichie uses one of the rhetorical questions following this statement in one of Ifemelu’s blogs “Oppression Olympics is what smart liberal Americans say to make you feel stupid and make you shut up. But is there an oppression Olympics going on?” forcing the readers and the immigrants that she has involved in her blogs to understand the difficult nature of exposing discrimination and comparing it. Chimamanda sends a strong message through Ifemelu’s blogs, that for immigrants to be accepted they must change their own identity into one that will be accepted by the segregated society around them, and in order to be accepted, they must fight for themselves when society disowns them by outlining physical traits making the struggle for acceptance much more difficult for immigrants. In Ifemelu’s blog posts Adichie can be more straightforward in her criticisms about race, identity, and American culture. Ifemelu is examining these things as a foreigner, and so possibly she may have an exclusive point of view.

Furthermore, Adichie in one of her famous Ted talks addresses how difficult the journey is for an immigrant to adjust to a completely new space in a new society with certain motives (such as education, and employment) that every small physical detail in how immigrants present themselves matter. Small details such as hair become very significant and act as a symbol in how Adichie characterizes Ifemelu in the novel. She discusses the Nigerian immigrant experience in London and America and how “race, politics, and gender can all be reflected through a woman’s hair”. From the very beginning of the novel, as readers, we find ourselves in a braiding salon in Trenton, New Jersey, where Ifemelu is about to have her hair braided before she returns back home to Nigeria. Through this Adichie uses hair and braiding to expose the political and personal issues such as the struggle for identity and race, which definitely can become intertwined. The use of the nonnative characters as workers in the salon may appear to the audience as somehow related to Ifemelu as Chimamanda wanted to create an atmosphere where the girls at the salon and Ifemelu can relate to each other as they face the same difficulties as immigrants. For Ifemelu personally, her hair is a representation for the struggle in gaining confidence and clear identity as both a “Black American” and a Nigerian woman. Ifemelu in Nigeria braided her hair and was never shamed or looked at awkwardly, in fact, she was seen as beautiful and elegant. However, when she comes to America she learns that she must “relax (straighten her hair with chemicals) to look professional and elegant, otherwise people will look down on her. This is clearly seen when the hairdresser says “ Just a little burn. But look how pretty it is. Wow, girl, you’ve got the white girl swing” introducing the pressure that you have as an immigrant from society in making sure you look up to their standards making Ifemelu push away her culture, therefore, becoming a symbol for racism inherent in American culture. Moreover, for Ifemelu the hair salon becomes the main setting for all her memories of Nigeria of life at home. Adichie used flashbacks to remind Ifemelu of her life at home in Nigeria by using “ the Nigerian movie that was playing on TV” and the “hot environment inside the salon”. This kind of scenario that Adichie explores in depth allows the readers to relate to the woman who came from various African countries struggling in America where they have to change much of their identity to be accepted. “America is no paradise, but in fact a hot an uncomfortable place”. Small observations such as “Mariama (hairdresser) apologizing for the broken air conditioner” that Adichie deliberately added in the novel, that we see Ifemelu recognize preserve a benevolent shared illusory about their identity and status in America. Hair in this case becomes more of a symbol in facing the struggles of identity as Ifemelu chooses to wear her natural hair rather than artificial hair. Moreover, Adichie expresses her feelings for a role model in her life Michelle Obama, in one of Ifemelu’s blogs on Michelle Obama’s speeches about hair using race as a metaphor. The rhetorical questions “ Ever notice makeover shows on TV, how the black woman has natural hair in the ugly before picture and in the pretty picture after someone has taken a hot piece of metal and signed her hair straight?” suggest that it is almost a burden for African Americans to walk around wearing their natural hair. To the society, it is unprofessional and unsophisticated therefore this blog proves that if Michelle Obama wore her natural “kinky hair” then Obama himself would have lost votes from society therefore again proving how hair, mainly African hair became a political statement that the society had a say on. Furthermore, according to most people in developed countries, as immigrants, it is widely known that once they join a new or different society they won’t be of the same “status” or level as citizens of that very country. Chimamanda clearly shows this through Ifemelu’s character, as Ifemelu knows that according to the status quo, “someone like her” is not supposed to reside in a place like Princeton, which is wealthy, white, and well-educated community. Her new crisis of identity both leads her to move back to Nigeria and makes her extremely afraid to do so. She worries and this makes her family member worry as well that America has somehow changed her and made her an entirely different person, so that she is no longer truly Nigerian. Ifemelu managed to find success as an immigrant in America but here Adichie alludes to the fact that Obinze did not have nearly as good an experience in England. This is seen in the line “Obinze had no luck and looked very depressed when he first came back from England years earlier” underlining the struggle in expressing his own culture and identity in the new society he lived in was almost impossible and unlike in Lagos he was a wealthy man who could act as he pleased, he didn’t have that opportunity in London as he had to adjust to the terms of the new society he was living in to be accepted. Additionally, Obinze used to idolize the west and developed countries as parents would send their children there to transform their lives positively. However, he has clearly grown disillusioned by his own terrible experiences as an immigrant such as the superiority of the western culture over the Nigerian culture leading to his culture being disowned and disrespected by the new society he lived in. Obinze’s lifelong enthrallment with America leads to a painful irony when he is the one denied an American visa and Ifemelu ends up becoming an American citizen. Obinze’s compliment doesn’t promote lighter skin over darker skin, but it still promotes American culture over Nigerian culture, which once again is a notion that he had to change his cultural appearance and struggle with this new identity in order to be accepted by society in the west. With her granola bar, Ifemelu is living up to one of her fears of having become too “Americanized.” For these other women, however, that is a compliment, as they are still struggling to become Americanized at all. But for Ifemelu, who is concerned with her identity as a Nigerian, Aisha questioning her Igbo is troubling. Adichie portrays most Nigerian men as favoring “sweet” pliable women, so Obinze stands apart in finding Ifemelu’s honesty attractive.

Adichie utilizes Ifemelu’s experiences as an immigrant in America and relationship with curt and Blaine who shape her identity and accept her for how she is and her first love Obinze to show the eventual breakdown and build up to the decision she made to return back home to Nigeria. To curt “Ifemelu is beautiful” but he still ends up cheating on her causing that to be one of the factors that made her return to Lagos and making her question which part of her identity made him do that, race? Or culture? Ifemelu becomes desperate for money and seems truly “restrained” by America. Her struggles for identity and success in America are all too common; therefore Adichie makes them subjective and compassionate through Ifemelu’s character. Once Ifemelu is unable to continue her stable life in America due to her not having any money, she reaches the lowest point in life. Adichie emphasizes, “Ifemelu’s “American dream” is over by now, as she finds herself unable to find any but the most unpleasant job and is instantly panicking about money”. The irony appears when Obinze has no choice but to send her money as being an immigrant the idea is that they imagine going to America, a developed country, settling for a stable life there, earning money, and sending it back home. Through such irony, the similarity can be connoted to Chimamanda’s her TED talk “A danger of a single story” where she actively emphasizes on the changes of lifestyle that an immigrant will have to adapt to and some may be successful and some may not but it should not stop you from fighting for your own identity in whichever country you migrate to. Due to Ifemelu’s being unable to care for herself in America anymore, she falls into a great depression, which then is the cause of “Ifemelu and obinze’s relationship to fall apart along with her mental health and a sense of who she is,”. This affects the relationship between her and Obinze as she ends communication with him due to her inability to explain how she feels. Therefore as readers, we can see the unfortunate turn of events that occur between them due to Ifemelu’s inability to live as an immigrant anymore foreshadowing her eventual return to Lagos back home.


Through the exploration of Americanah, we as readers can classify that cultural criticism and race inevitably contribute to the struggle of shaping an African American’s identity. From the beginning itself, Adichie exposed Ifemelu to various types of discrimination including, culture, ethnicity, race, and economic position which changed Ifemelu’s character as a whole as she was forced to face the pressure of a new society that made her feel like an outsider, unwanted and truly someone she was not.

It is clear that Adichie has successfully developed the struggle of identity for immigrants through the character Ifemelu as she had to sole handily suffer and feel the pressure of a society that thwarts individual goals and the development of identities. Ifemelu herself is a clear example that black women undoubtedly have to play along with unwanted situations such as taming their natural hair as a result of racial differences and the need for a certain type of professionalism. Ifemelu is portrayed as a strong, organized, and ambitious character in the beginning as she strives to progress and become successful as an immigrant, however as pressure from society dwells on her new life, she is forced to change and become someone she is not, therefore making her forget her Nigerian roots which then becomes the reason she decides to return back home.

Furthermore through characterization and the Blogs that Adichie voiced through Ifemelu portrayed the hardships of immigrants during the time when people believed in the “American Dream” procuring emancipation and progress however slowly show the failure of it all as the novel progresses.

There is an important message that Adichie relays to immigrants and societies all over the world; by showing the immeasurable power different perceptions have in shaping and manipulating identity. Having a significant stereotype or norm, can be destructive and have a massive impact on identities. Therefore as we build greater relations with societies today acceptance is very key in generating an understanding with people unlike from ourselves.

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