The lead character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s exceptional novel is a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. When a teachers’ strike shutters her college, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria for America, where she becomes instantly embroiled in our culture of race. “I only became black when I came to America,” Ifemelu says. From her immigrant stance, Adichie—through Ifemelu—observes and skewers racism and sexism in a story that is both affecting and hilarious. I concluded the novel wanting very much to meet Ifemelu—to buy her a drink as thanks.

Reading notes

You are black, baby

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, migrates to the United States for college. Years later, she starts an anonymous blog about some of the things she learned as a Non-American Black living in America. The blog is instantly popular. Many of her blog posts advise other Non-American Blacks about how to get along in America, and one in particular is worth quoting at length:

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it—you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad”? I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby. And here’s the deal with becoming black: You must show that you are offended when such words as “watermelon” or “tar baby” are used in jokes, even if you don’t know what the hell is being talked about—and since you are a Non-American Black, the chances are that you won’t know. (In undergrad a white classmate asks if I like watermelon, I say yes, and another classmate says, Oh my God that is so racist, and I’m confused. “Wait, how?”) You must nod back when a black person nods at you in a heavily white area. It is called the black nod. It is a way for black people to say “You are not alone, I am here too.” In describing black women you admire, always use the word “STRONG” because that is what black women are supposed to be in America. If you are a woman, please do not speak your mind as you are used to doing in your country. Because in America, strong-minded black women are SCARY. And if you are a man, be hyper-mellow, never get too excited, or somebody will worry that you’re about to pull a gun.

Adichie, Americanah, page 222

When a crime is reported, pray that it was not committed by a black person, and if it turns out to have been committed by a black person, stay well away from the crime area for weeks, or you might be stopped for fitting the profile. If a black cashier gives poor service to the non-black person in front of you, compliment the person’s shoes or something, to make up for the bad service, because you’re just as guilty for the black person’s crimes. If you are in an Ivy League college and a Young Republican tells you that you got in only because of Affirmative Action, do not whip out your perfect grades from high school. Instead, gently point out that the biggest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are white women. If you go to eat in a restaurant, please tip generously. Otherwise the next black person who comes in will get awful service, because waiters groan when they get a black table. You see, black people have a gene that makes them not tip, so please overpower that gene. If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise, you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.

Adichie, Americanah, page 223

If possible, make it funny. Ifemelu’s blog posts appear here and there in the latter half of the book and consolidate her experiences into tangible survival tactics. But note the distance created around them: Adichie adopts Ifemelu who in turn adopts a distinct online persona. The truth may be funny but it remains dangerous to speak directly.