Migration and Identity Crisis in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah 

Americanah is Ms. Adichie’s third novel and considered to be the most politically conscious of all of her novels. The centre of attraction in the text is racism, a subject that has over the years caused serious mistrust between the races concerned. To Adichie, she only came to realize the existence of race, because she moved to America. Jolted to reality because of this, she had to find a space to write about the effects of this racism on the blacks, migrants and other concerned colours in America.

Ifemelu, the central character of the text, grew up in Nigeria, where there is no issue of race and everyone is black, migrating to America where there are different races becomes sort of identity crisis for her. She comes to know of the colour of her skin, how the blacks are at the bottom of the social ladder. She resists this identity that she comes to know on her coming to America through writing.

Apart from the issues of race, there are also other issues and mistaken identity and representation of America that she would come to encounter in her new country.  There is the issue of America’s image and representation not being exactly as it has been portrayed around the world. What Ifemelu comes to meet is way different from what she had always perceived. On her entrance into America, Ifemelu’s perception about the country is in foremost affected by the weather and look as this,

All her life she had thought of “overseas” as a cold place of wool coats and snow, and because America was“overseas”, and her illusions so strong they could not be fended off by reason. On her arrival, the sweltering heat alarmed her, as did Aunty Uju’s old Toyota hatchback,with a patch of rust on its side and peeling fabric on the seats. She stared at buildings. and cars and signboards, all of them matt, disappointingly matt. (349)

Thus, Ifemelu is shocked by what she discovers to be the America that her boyfriend, Obinze, adored in all the glory and gloss the way they were showed back home. This is her first realization of the issue of a different picture from what she had known. Her migrating to America would come with the changes in thought and identity than she had imagined.

In another situation right after migration, she also comes to discover that Aunty Uju assumes another personality. Aunty Uju is no longer the former one in Nigeria she conversed and connected to, Aunty Uju had changed. The old Aunty Uju was gone, and this was caused by her migration to America with her son, Dike. In America, Aunty Uju assumes another personality, haunted by the frustration of the country and the cultural expectation foisted on her by Americans, she has to change to cope. Her predicament is presented as this,

“He can get arrested for that, but this is not a good neighbourhood anyway,” Aunty Uju said shortly. There was something different about her. Ifemelu had noticed it right away at the airport, her roughly braided hair, her ears bereft of earrings, her quick casual hug, as if it had been weeks rather than years since they had last seen each other. (351)

Aunty Uju is not the only person who changes personality and identity, Dike, his son, also does. Aunty Uju, like her son, picks up some American expectations of her by pronouncing her name as you-ju. Her identity is totally changed, beginning from her name to her actions and methods of interaction.

This is the same ordeal that Dike encounters. However, the difference is in their age. While Dike’s case is in a way excusable because he was brought into the country as an infant, Aunty Uju was a fully grown adult and should not have been too adversely affected by the migration change. Of course, Aunty Uju does not change a lot, but this cannot be said of Dike. On Ifemelu’s arrival to their home for the first time, she makes this impression of Dike,

But that afternoon, she hardly noticed Alma, or the living room furnished only with a couch and a TV .., because she was absorbed by Dike. The last time she saw him, on the day of Aunty Uju’s hasty departure from Lagos, he had been a one-year-old, crying unendingly at the airport as though he understood the upheaval his life had just undergone, and now here he was, a first grader with a seamless American accent and a hyper-happiness about him. (355)

Ifemelu first of all gets to know of the living condition of Aunty Uju through her mannerisms and the little furnishing of her sitting room. Ifemelu knew Aunty Uju before she left for America, she was not the type that would limit her standard of living when she had access to something greater. The living condition of Aunty Uju was abysmal; it was not what she had been expecting. Her dashed expectation was worsened that night in another situation as this, “there was nothing wrong with the arrangement—she had, after all, slept on mats when she visited her grandmother in the village—but this was America at last, glorious America at last, and she had not expected to bed on the floor,” (357).

Ifemelu called it “the glorious America,” because she had so much expectations and idea about the country. America had this grace around it in her mind, all these grace and glory are jeopardized by the actual reality of the America she comes to encounter. One of these gloriousness is in the freedom and equity she had expected as well. However, she is disappointed to find a country whose interaction is marred by racism and skewed racial relations. It is not what she expected  that she got.

In another case, similar to what Darling in We Need New Names experienced in America about cockroaches, Ifemelu also got to come in contact with cockroaches in America. Her reaction to the cockroaches, it was more of shock, because this was not what she had been expecting. Like she had not been expecting to bed on the floor, she had not also be expecting to find cockroaches easily in the kitchen. The experience is best represented as, “a fat cockroach was perched on the wall near the cabinets … If she had been in their Lagos kitchen, she would have found a broom and killed it, but she left the American cockroach alone and went and stood by the living room window” (359).

Ginika giving Ifemelu notes on leaving in America lets her know that there are differences in the aspect of living in Nigeria and living in America. There are several topics discussed by Ginika ranging from the issue of colour to the issue of size; however, the issue of colour is made prominent. The different perception of hurt and manners of interpretation leads to the way American use words and language in general. Ginika gives a short note on living in America,

There’s some shit you’ll get from white people in this country that I won’t get. But anyway, I was telling them about back home and how all the boys were chasing me because I was a half-caste, and they said I was dissing myself. So now I say biracial, and I ’m supposed to be offended when somebody says half-caste. I’ve met a lot of people here with white mothers and they are so full of issues, eh.  (413)

Ginika as the earlier comer to America guides Ifemelu on the experiences she would encounter based on race. Ginika in Nigeria was an half-caste, who was adored by people, and was not in anyway discriminated. In America, she takes on the biracial identity, and would have to come to terms with the racial inequality in the country. Though, she would not be treated as bad as people of a complete black complexion like Ifemelu, she still had her forms of racial issues to deal with.

Of all characters in relation to the matter of migration and identity crisis, Dike is the worst hit. This is as a result of his tender age at the point of departure from Nigeria, and how he grow through the racism in the country. His mother and Ifemelu had had good racial background in Nigeria and have toughened up, unlike Dike, whose only contact with the world was the American world. Every experience he comes to know in America dictates his mind.

Through the actions of her mother and the racially linked actions of his teachers, pastors and colleagues in school and church, Dike comes to realize that he is treated in whatever way, not because of his own actions and capabilities, but the colour of his skin. This gets so much that he begins to identify as “black,” even when it was needless. Ifemelu recalling this identity crisis of Dike after his suicide attempt, calls out to Aunty Uju,

“Do you remember when Dike was telling you something and he said ‘we black folk’ and you told him ‘you are not black’?” she asked Aunty Uju … “You should not have done that.”

“You know what I meant. I didn’t want him to start behaving like these people and thinking that everything that happens to him is because he’s black.”

“You told him what he wasn’t but you didn’t tell him what he was.” (1229)

Dike’s identification with the black is coming on the backdrop of the country assigning identity to everyone based on language, tribe and colour. His mother, Aunty Uju not concurring to this identification makes Dike confused on the position to take on in his identity. This conflict of identity is what leads him apart worsened by the racism he encounters. This problem of Dike’s identity is complicated, because he would not accept the position of his mother and accept his Nigerian status, he states, “no. I don’t think I like Nigeria, Coz” (381) in response to Ifemelu’s choice of Nigerian snacks of banana and peanuts. The racism and conflicting identity leads Dike to commit suicide.

In addition to this pain, the racism and colour shock Ifemelu encounters in America makes her become a successful blogger on race. When she writes about her experience about race, the anger she feels and the shock she comes to know, she is fluent in her ideas. Aunty Uju, too, is affected very much by the idea of race she encounters as a doctor working in America, and she is fluent in her disdain and expression against racism.  All of them who migrates have one way or another of encountering identity crisis and deal with it in separate ways.

Concluding, these two novels so far have explored migration and identity crisis in different ways and format. They are both set in Africa and America. They are novels of coming of age.  The issues they are concerned with are the same, ranging from racism to poverty to ambition. Meanwhile, while Americanah focuses primarily on middle-class Africans, We Need New Names focuses on poor and working class characters. They achieve the same objectives, although coming to it from somewhat different angles.

Work Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Farafina, 2013.

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