Adichie first describes Ifemelu's mother's hair with the entrancing sentence, “It was black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon, so full it took hours under the hooded dryer, and, when finally released from pink plastic rollers, sprang free and full, flowing down her back like a celebration. Her father called it a crown of glory” (49). In the next few pages, however, Adichie presents a heartbreaking picture of religious extremism as Ifemelu's mother converts multiple times between sects of Christianity that have her fast for days at a time, abstain from other pleasures such as dancing, and most importantly chop off her hair and swear off relaxer. Hair is incredibly important to Ifemelu's experience of Nigeria and America as, especially in America, it can represent one's cultural and individual identity or be wielded as a means of racism and oppression. This portrait of Ifemelu's complicated early life through her mother's hair transformations foreshadows the later importance of hair in the main characters' life while artfully demonstrating why a disconnect later exists between Ifemelu and her parents.
Chinese Food (Symbol)
The women at the hair salon where Ifemelu has her hair braided throughout the earlier portion of the book take a break midway through their day to order and eat Chinese food. They ask Ifemelu if she wants to order anything in a gesture of kinship but she declines, opting for the food of a different American lifestyle - a healthy granola bar. Chinese food is a fusion food all but appropriated from China, recognized as having little in common with the food actually eaten in the East. The food is full of sugar and grease, and the smell fills the hot hair salon, making Ifemelu uncomfortable both physically and with the concept of these immigrant women immersing themselves so fully in a strange American creation.
Ifemelu's relationship with Curt is loving but strained by the differences in their lived experiences due to race, class, and nationality. In one particularly trying moment, Curt accuses the magazine Essense of of being "racially skewed" (364). In response, Ifemelu makes him go to a book store, takes down a stack of magazines, and flips through them looking for the differences in representation within. In the whole stack, they find only three or four black women, all with light skin. Though Curt acts as if he is humoring her in this enterprise, his comment and this experience symbolize the lack of representation of black women, especially dark black women, in American media. Even in a novel on race and being (perceived as) a black woman in the United States, it is easy to forget the marginalization of black lives because of Adichie and Ifemelu's parallel success through their writing. This event reminds the reader that even in the pop cultural sphere of magazines, the United States has a long way to go toward equal representation, a problem which goes unrecognized by many white people who decry "reverse racism" when the issue is dealt with through the creation of alternate spaces.
Dike, Ifemelu's cousin who was born in Nigeria but grows up almost entirely in America, and in primarily white spaces at that, is an important symbol in the story as he represents the conflict of identity for second-generation Africans in America. His mother, Aunty Uju, does not allow him to connect with his African roots, preventing him from learning to speak Igbo, not talking to him about his father, and not taking him back to visit, but she also does not approve with him being a part of American black culture. Dike unsuccessfully attempts suicide as a teenager, an event that shakes Aunty Uju and Ifemelu greatly, but the two women blame this attempt on drastically different things; Ifemelu believes that his discomfort in life stems from his lack of identity while Aunty Uju says that many teenagers have clinical depression which should be viewed and treated medically.
Huckleberry Finn and Other Books Suggested by Men (Symbol/Motif)
The books that characters read and enjoy often provide useful information about their personalities and goals. When Ifemelu reflects upon her past boyfriends, both Obinze and Blaine try to force her to read and enjoy books that they enjoy and think are worthy of interest, both of them suggesting books that she sees as dry or overly intellectual. Ifemelu fights back the most when Obinze tells her to read Huckleberry Finn, a book that epitomizes his love of American culture without true understanding of its current state, which she gives back to him only having read a small portion. In contrast, by the time she dates Blaine she is more accepting of his suggestions, and feels guilty when she does not see the riches that he does in his books as well as his preferred art and music, all of which demonstrate his high level of education and his immersion in the American black culture that she observes but is not truly a part of.
Americanah Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Americanah is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.