Identity and Validation in Americanah

While I’ll be the first to admit that Americanah is a well-written book that captivates readers through its narrative and language, I know that my association to and affinity for the book rests primarily in my identity. As a first-generation American born to Sierra Leonean immigrants, I see pieces of myself in Ifemelu, in Dike, in Obinze. I see pieces of my friends and family in the people they interact with, the people they love, the people they stand at odds with. And this is easily the first time that I’ve ever read a book with which I identify so strongly.

So it seems only fitting that I might write my blog post about identity in the novel and specifically a couple moments of validation that I was particularly fascinated by. In class yesterday, Jarred asked us to consider moments of gendered identity (as opposed to racial/ethnic identity) in the novel and immediately, my mind turned to a moment that seemed to use one to validate the other. It comes on pages 14-18 (in my version of the book) when the hairdresser Mariama is talking to Ifemelu about ethnicity and eventually, the Igbo men she wants to marry. From the get-go, the way heritage and ethnicity are dealt with in the scene is interesting as Mariama takes ownership of sorts over Ifemelu’s identity, stating that Ifemelu is Yoruba instead of asking. Then she goes on to outright deny Ifemelu the right to her Igbo heritage because of her looks and, when the topic of Igbo men comes up, would prefer to trust her sister’s word over that of Ifemelu, the actual Igbo person. That is, until Ifemelu mentions a boyfriend wanting on her in Nigeria. Then, all at once, Mariama seems to not only trust Ifemelu’s identity but validate it altogether: she only considers Ifemelu’s opinion on Igbo men marrying not-Igbo women to be valid once Ifemelu has established herself as a good woman by her standards — and in this case, that’s a woman with a man to marry and a future as a wife ahead of her.

This was an incredibly fascinating scene because it seems to speak to so many issues at once. Not only does it unpack the notions of gender and gender roles in this cultural context but it also nuanced the way that ethnicity can be validated by concepts that should really have no bearing on its authenticity in the first place.

This wasn’t the only moment of identity validation (or lack thereof) that stuck out to me. Another came on page 219 when Aunty Uju was criticizing Dike for writing a paper in which he says he isn’t sure about his identity and “does not know what he is”. Rather than engage this admission (which is a fair one for a child in his cultural position, I think), Aunty Uju dismisses it as America’s bad influence, and in doing so, decides for him how he should feel about his identity. She essentially becomes the authority on his identity turmoil, declaring that it doesn’t exist and that he is what she says he is.

I think I found this trend of external validation to be so interesting because it surrounds a form of identity that, by definition, should be unquestionable. Your ethnicity, race and heritage is yours and yours alone and yet the novel seems to undo this notion by having external forces be the judge and jury about the main characters’ ethnicity and heritage. Sadly enough, this is hardly just a fictional phenomenon. I have cousins whose membership to our culture is challenged off of the mere fact that their skin color is “too light” for them to be African and even after telling those people once, twice, three times where they’re from and who they are, it remains the butt of jokes, a source of playful contest: “Man, you’ll never guess where this girl is from!”

It’s a fascinating thought that other people can, at times, feel more qualified than us to define who we are.

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