Please read the following excellent reviews about Americanah here, if you are about to read this article and don’t know what book I am referring to, as this piece is not a book review but my own personal reflection on how Americanah ties to my experience as a Sierra Leonean female student in the United States of America.
I perfected the habit of distancing myself from hard and complex issues,at a very young age, as opposed to confronting them. The ability to remove myself as a factor from an equation has become not only a shield but also an excuse to not really have to deal with a difficult situation anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a cold, unfeeling,unattached, unemotional being, quite the opposite. I am extremely sensitive, quite often to my disadvantage, and I feel that I take things more personally and feel more deeply than the average emotionally healthy person. So the fact that I can “distance” myself is relative and depends on a case by case situation. And this dilemma of what I call “situational distancing” came up when I finished reading the book Americanah by my current all time favorite Author Ngozi Adichie. As a self-proclaimed groupie and unashamed loyal fan of her work, I decided to buy Americanah as a birthday gift to myself. I remember reading the book every night and thinking how I didn’t really want to finish it, because I would have nothing else to look forward to. Different reviews have described Americanah as a book about romance, migration, being African in America, etc. However,I identified with the main character Ifemelu, when the plot shifted to her experience as a “non-American black” living in the States. For the first time, I was forced to face the question of where I as a young Sierra Leonean girl, fit into the conversation of race and racism in the United States.
I can’t quite pinpoint when exactly I was christened into the racial dynamics and racism in the United States, but I can vividly remember when I began to question how and why I was consciously distancing myself from it. It begin with a Philosophy class I took last year at my college, called “Race, Gender and Justice”, wherein I began to really become aware of racial complexities and racism in the United States. During that class, it became very easy for me to put myself in the seat of an observer, giving my views and perspectives as an outsider looking in, a Sierra Leonean student observing the racial dynamics between the Whites, African-Americans, and Native Americans who were all, to me, just Americans anyway. And in many ways, I feel like that is how the main character in Americanah, Ifemelu starts off when she first comes to the States, observing the relationships between Americans, with folded hands and a sense of both distance and curiosity.
I struggle with this question: Can we,as Africans who are presumably in the U.S either temporarily for study or as permanent immigrants, ever then legitimately talk about race in America? Where does the “non-American Black”, especially the “African” ,stand in the racial dynamics in America? Do we see ourselves as just by-standers? I struggle with this question because African immigrants in America have to deal with two types of baggage: The first is having to deal with all the stereotypical elements of coming from “Africa”,and then for black Africans ,having to deal with the issue of also being black in America.So,in summary ,the fact that I,as a Sierra Leonean, am black from “Africa”, puts me, whether I like it or not,kicking and screaming or laughing and smiling,into a different category ,which is both racial and foreign,an immigrant, whether temporary ,or permanent.Thus,whenever I encounter micro-aggressiveness, condescension, exotic objectification, or outright racist behavior from racial and ethnic groups across the American spectrum; African-Americans,Whites, Asian Americans and Hispanic/Latinos, I start to analyze exactly where it is coming from, because different dimensions are at play here. Is it because I am black? Or because I am from “Africa”, or both?
When I hear of African immigrants getting questions such as “so what is like in your village?” from a white American, or I hear an Eddie Murphy joke about Africans “riding butt-naked on Zebras”, I become confused as to which of it I can consider as racism or condescension towards Africans. A way of dealing with this confusion (or at least the way I deal with it),is by isolating myself through distance from racial dynamics around me. A huge part of the reason for this distance is mainly fear. Fear of the policing of my ideas about race and racism, when technically, I am not a factor in the racial equation in the U.S. Which ,to an extent, is true. I am grouped under the category of “black”, my nationality and ethnicity grouped into an existing racial category in the United States. Africans are considered “black”, but yet we are not even considered as a “minority group”, heck, many college application forms do not even have a box to tick an identity as “African”, it just says “black”. So seeing how I ,being from an African country,am entirely a separate category, somewhat obscure and non-prominent,maybe even racially and ethnically non-existent, I guess I should still place myself as an observer then?