Being African In America

Parul Sehgal interviews Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author born in Nigeria who has lived in the US off and on since age 19, about how she handled race in her book Americanah:

CNA: Race is, I think, the subject that Americans are most uncomfortable with. (Gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion are not as uncomfortable.) This is an American generation raised with the mantra: DO NOT OFFEND. And often honesty about race becomes synonymous with offending someone. …

I wanted very much to write an honest book. … I do realize that there is a certain privilege in my position as an outsider, a foreigner, somebody who is not an American. I am really looking in from the outside. I became fascinated by race when I came to the U.S. I still am. I am fascinated by the many permutations of race, especially of blackness, since that is the identity I was assigned in America.

PS: You give [Americanah character] Ifemelu a similar line: “How many other people had become black in America?” Was it a specific moment for you? Did you resent it? Embrace it?

CNA: At first I resented it. A few weeks into my stay in the U.S., an African American man in Brooklyn called me “sister,” and I recoiled. I did not want to be mistaken for African American. I hadn’t been long in the U.S., but I had already bought into the stereotypes associated with blackness. I didn’t want to be black. I didn’t yet realize that I really didn’t have a choice.

Then my resentment turned to acceptance. I read a lot of African American history. And if I had to choose a group of people whose collective story I most admire today, then it would be African Americans. The resilience and grace that many African Americans brought to a brutal and dehumanizing history is very moving to me. Sometimes race enrages me, sometimes it amuses me, sometimes it puzzles me.

I’m now happily black and now don’t mind being called a sister, but I do think that there are many ways of being black. And when I am in Nigeria, I never think of myself as black.

Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, is seen above.

(Hat tip: Paper Trail)