Some years ago, I was having lunch with coworkers when news about a bombing somewhere in Asia broke out. Before I could even think, I blurted this question: who was responsible, was it Muslims? I wanted to take my words back. I was ashamed of myself because one of the guys I was having lunch with happened to be a Muslim. I became aware of the prejudices embedded in my subconscious. To be a social development worker with racist tendencies is a gruesome irony.
I recalled this event while reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. The novel explores race, particularly blackness in America and the world’s perceptions on people of color. America has come a long way since the abolition of slavery and Rosa Parks’ refusal to follow a bus rule prejudicial against African-Americans, a small but powerful act of resistance that sparked the revolution against racial segregation. Being a racist may be frowned upon in today’s more inclusive society, but that doesn’t mean that there is no more racism. Adichie engages the reader to look closer into America’s culture and psyche through the struggles of Ifemelu, the novel’s central character.
Ifemelu hails from Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria. The country was under a military junta and universities were besieged by student riots against the corrupt government. Ifemelu was among the lucky ones. She obtained a scholarship in America which meant leaving behind her family, her roots, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. But America was not the land of promise she thought it was. Ifemelu faced discrimination and exploitation that drove her to commit desperate acts.
Discrimination came from various fronts: from the WASPs or the whites who descended from Anglo-Saxons and Presbyterians, from African-Americans born and raised in America, from blacks coming from Africa and the Caribbean, and from the other people of color that originated from the rest of the world. But Ifemelu found her strength and voice through her blog. Her first post about hair as a statement of female empowerment drew attention and conversation. She gained more confidence in verbalizing what exactly is blackness in America. Meanwhile, Obinze was refused entry to America but obtained a British tourist visa. In the UK, Obinze dealt with struggles ordinarily faced by people from developing countries.
Americanah is a politically charged novel yet it is anything but repulsive. Adichie’s language is simple and accessible. On the week I was reading Americanah I was swamped with work and worries. The novel kept me sane. I rooted for Ifemelu’s victory. I rooted for Ifemelu and Obinze’s romance for theirs was a relationship of equals governed by a burning passion, awe, and respect for the other. I rooted for Ifemelu’s blog, the amalgamation of her experiences and rebellions. Americanah is the best novel I’ve read so far this year and it might as well be among the greatest novels I’ve read in years. Americanah makes the reader more conscious of his attitudes to the different social classes. Here is a novel shaped by an author’s struggles assimilating in a foreign society. She continues to verbalize her dissent and won’t standby in peace while racism is still around crushing hopes and dreams.
Here in the Philippines, we may not have blacks and whites but racism is in full battle gear. You just have to check out the social media posts and comments of your friends and colleagues and spot check racism based on their opinions on the poor and underprivileged. One can also check out local movies and TV shows and spot racism on how low-earning, blue-collar jobs are stereotyped. My best friend once addressed a young lady ‘Inday’ which provoked a strong negative reaction. That young lady was lectured that Inday in Cebuano is an endearment, not necessarily a maid or house help. We may unaware but racism is embedded in our subconscious and novels like Americanah remind why racism exists and how we may challenge it and work around it.
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