Party in the USA: Approaching Black Bodies in Americanah

First, I want to thank everyone for a great discussion today. I learned a significant amount about how I’ve been approaching race and the discussion about the Brown Daily Herald, and really enjoyed thinking about the themes of this book in depth.

One topic I think Jarred brought up but we didn’t fully flesh out in the book is that of gender and sexuality- something I briefly spoke about in class in regards to my feelings of connection with the author and her relationships. In class, I described this in terms of recognizing many aspects of her story in my personal experiences with relationships. There are many aspects of these relationships – the family dynamics,  the decisions to refrain from or engage in sexual relationships, the difficulty of long distance relationships and suddenly loss of contact – that feel incredibly familiar to me. Within those topics, I wanted to explore the way that Adichie approaches sexuality in this story, especially in the context of the United States.

The passage where Ifemelu and Ginika discuss their bodies in terms of American norms really struck me. Ginika says, “Obinze better hurry up… before somebody will carry you away. You know you have the kind of body they like here… You’re thin with big breasts…” and Ifemelu responds, “Is that why you stopped eating? All your bum has gone. I was wished I had a bum like yours” (151). While the girls are chatting freely among friends, this discussion of their bodies in terms of American sexual politics points to several insights about perceived “American” ideals and how those ideals impact people immigrating to the United States at an age where sexual appeal is a priority (in many cases).

I find it fascinating that Ginika is jealous of Ifemelu’s chest (a frequently white or European associated trait) while Ifemelu reveals her wish for a larger ‘bum’, something people of white or European descent often associate with people of color (most often Black or Latino women). While this parsing out may be going too deep, it reveals a codification of female bodies common in the United States. I recall the VMAs several years ago when Miley Cyrus came under fire for appropriating ‘twerking’ and using Black backup dancers to further her career without recognizing the harmful undertones of minstrel history for the black community (Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote a great piece on this here). The use of Black female bodies for white entertainment is clearly problematic; Adichie’s description of two Black women as desiring to possess features with that characteristic appeal is incredibly telling of how ingrained into American culture these beauty standards remain, and the pressure they exert on immigrant women living in the United States.

Later in the book, I was struck by the lack of agency of the woman that Obinze is arranged to marry in order to obtain legal status. When the Angolan men request more money, Cleotilde reveals that the Angolans hold her passport, saying “Otherwise we could do this on our own” (325). However, “he did not want to do it on his own, with Cleotilde. It was too important and he needed the weight of the Angolans’ expertise, their experience” (325). While this is not a sexualized situation, Cleotilde and her body are clearly a tool for men to share their power. The Angolan men hold her passport and require payment for not only the release of her passport, but the security of Obinze’s papers. In this situation, Cleotilde has very little power over her body and her role in this process. The use of Cleotilde as a stand-in, simply a legal tool by the Angolans reminds me of Ifemelu’s decision to revisit the man in desire of ‘companionship’. These uses of the female body, although somewhat based in the woman’s agency, reveal a tension between female sexuality and male power in immigration economics.

I have to wonder how the economics of entertainment impacted Miley’s backup dancers decision to participate in her show. Clearly, I do not know their goals or their reasons for participation- however, I am sure that they were compensated monetarily for their performances. Regardless of their political or social desires, there is a politics of payment that I feel is incredibly important to explore, especially when the performance is inherently sexualized.

Clearly, these small insights are not the main political statement that Adichie hopes to leave readers with, but I feel that a closer look can help to illuminate another facet of the experiences presented in this narrative.

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