Hair as a Symbol in Americanah

One of the main things that struck me while reading Americanah was the use of hair, specifically black woman’s hair, as a symbol for Ifemelu’s struggle with identity and the embedded racism in American culture and society. The importance of hair in the novel was brought up a few times in class today and because it was one of the main things that jumped out at me in the novel, I wanted to explore it further. We first see the introduction of hair in the beginning of the book when Ifemelu goes to the hair salon, where much of the novel takes place.

For Ifemelu herself, hair represented her struggle for confidence and identity as both a Nigerian immigrant and a black American. When Ifemelu first comes to America, she realizes she is supposed to relax her hair instead of having it in braids in order to seem more professional. When she first decides to try relaxing and straightening her hair, she can smell her hair burning which I think is used to show the death of her independence and confidence due to her conforming to Western standards of beauty. She feels that a part of herself has died (being burned away) along with her natural hair. The moment she “falls in love with her [natural] hair” is a moment of self-love, confidence, and independence. We can see this idea of hair symbolizing independence with regards to Ifemelu’s mother. In one of the memories shared by Ifemelu, her mother comes home one days and cuts off all her hair. This act can be seen as Ifemelu’s mother giving up her independence for the sake of religion.

For the greater American society, hair begins to represent the racism embedded in American culture and society. Ifemelu herself says “hair is the perfect metaphor for race in America.” It shows the small ways in which racism transcends into seemingly trivial things, like beauty, in American culture. A black woman must relax her hair to seem more professional but also to seem more beautiful. They must do so to seem more white and conform to the American standards of beauty. For example, when Ifemelu has her hair natural and she is with Curt walking around, a black American man asks her why Curt would want to be with her when her hair is like that. This especially shows the power of this ingrained racism in American culture and society because even this black man views black women’s natural hair as less beautiful and less civilized. Additionally, Ifemelu points out that magazines rarely ever have information regarding black women’s hair and the best products or techniques to use for the hair. This simple example shows how the norm, “white”, is given preference over blacks even in things like beauty magazines. One more example from the novel of hair acting as a metaphor for race in America is when Kelsey is in the hair salon getting her hair braided. In this case, hair represents how white american society appropriates part of black culture for itself while continuing to oppress black people themselves.

Hair also shows up as an important part of American society when she must get most of her hair chopped off due to the extensive damage done to it by the relaxing chemicals. When she returns to the office, her coworkers ask if her hair cut means “something political” or if it means she is a lesbian. This to me, showed the importance of hair when determining someone’s identity. Not only is people’s hair an extension of their identity but also is used by people to identify others and determine what other’s identity is.

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