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Americanah

January 19, 2014

ButterBeans

My reading habits the past few years have come and gone like West African seasons: all or nothing.  I started reading at the St. Louis airport, on the way back to Liberia, and I haven’t been able to stop.  During my last ‘rainy season’ I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun.  It was haunting and beautiful and I stayed up late devouring it by candlelight during my last stretch in Sanniquellie.

When I discovered Adiche had two more novels I found a way to jam them in my return luggage.  She’s been called the 21st century daughter of famed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and she’s won a MacArthur Fellowship along with numerous literary accolades.  If you haven’t heard of her, though, perhaps you’ve heard of TED and Beyoncé. My internet is too slow for me to actually watch her TED talks, but the most recent one on feminism and women’s right hit such a chord with Beyoncé that she sampled it on her new album.  (That’s pretty cool.)

The thing about Adiche, though, is that her books are like drugs.  You need them and want them and somehow love them, but they don’t always make you feel good.

This is particularly true of Americanah.  A young girl leaves Nigeria in her third year of university because of teacher strikes.  She is accepted to a college in Philadelphia and, well…. shit happens.  This book was really hard to read.  I stayed up every night unable to put it down, stopping only when the current cut out at midnight.  “I hate you!” I would yell, chunking it on the floor.  “Why is life so damn unfair?”

The hardest part was knowing that, even though it’s a novel, everything could be true and somewhere is someone’s reality.  Many someones’ reality.  I went to college in Main Line Philly where some of the darker parts of the story are set and I could imagine every nasty bit of it.  I thought about the friends I made working my dining service job for four years.  All of them black, many of them West African, they took a long train to the suburbs everyday to wash our dishes.  It hurt then, but it hurt even more reading about it here, on my porch, in Liberia.

So many of my students dream of going to America.  “Ms. RB,” they say, “America is heaven.  People don’t have problems there.”  Of course that isn’t true and I try to gently explain that, but as I send out batch after batch of scholarship applications I always find myself wondering if I’m doing the right thing.

It will be so…. hard.

My mom has asked me several times if we could find a way for my students to come study in America and I’ve always just shaken my head and said no.  But the guilty truth is I’m not sure if I want them to.  I don’t want them to be changed and hardened and made to feel that, somehow, they weren’t good enough the way they were before.  I’m sorry, America, but I’m not sure I trust you to take care of them, to make them feel welcome.  (Heard about Darrin Manning in Philly?)  So, of the nearly 100 scholarship applications I’ve helped students with, only four of them have been for study in America.

In December I contacted the University of Missouri, in my hometown, to ask about admissions from Liberia.  After a month, when I’d given up on them, I got a strange email.  It had a lot of exclamation points and asked where I went to high school but was unswerving in its misunderstanding and unhelpfulness.  They said that even though my son speaks English and did all his school in English he has to take the TOEFL.  They said that even though mail is almost non-existent and extremely expensive we have to send original official documents.

“Hope this helps!!!!!”

I passed through the campus a few times while I was in Columbia, looking at the high-rise condo-style dormitories and the spray-tanned blondes clutching lattes as they ran between buildings, and I deleted the email.  I imagined the way people would treat him and the person he would become, would have to become, to survive, and I wanted more.

After her initial difficult transition, the protagonist of Americanah finally pulls her life together but struggles to find her place as a non-American black, eventually starting a blog about the sticky maze of race in America.  These were the most difficult parts of the book to read as I mentally cast my students in the situations and could, without difficulty, imagine them playing out.  Situations with titles like: “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism” and “Traveling While Black.”

I thought about the airline workers who, in Accra, told one of my sons en route to Costa Rica, “You’re Liberian.  Just get on the plane and go back where you belong.  You will never go anywhere else.”  And that was in West Africa.

“But, Ms. RB, America is heaven.”

Americanah will force you to think about race, immigration, and even normalcy in America.  It won’t be comfortable, but we’ll all be better for it.  So highly recommended.

Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

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