Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


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Americanah – Symbols and Motifs


Hair, particularly Ifemelu’s hair, is used frequently in the novel to comment on her adaptation and/or defiance of American cultural norms. Ifemelu’s hair, whether braided, relaxed, or natural, represents her state of assimilation in America, or her attempts to pushback against it. The novel begins in a Trenton hair salon—though Ifemelu lives in Princeton, New Jersey, she must travel to another city to have her hair braided. She has been wearing her hair in a small, natural Afro, but is about to return to Nigeria, and therefore must have braids, as is customary there.

Though Ifemelu understands that “the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired” (3) that a braiding salon would not be necessary, the fact she has to travel for this service nonetheless annoys her. The braiding salon itself is a pan-African enterprise, with female employees and customers from Nigeria, Ghana, the Caribbean, and more. The salon functions more like Africa than America, with Nigerian movies playing on TV, and Ifemelu haggles with the shop owner, something that is not a part of American culture. In the salon, Ifemelu is better understood than in Princeton. When she complains of the heat, she knows the women around her will not say, “‘You’re hot? But you’re from Africa!’” (13). Ifemelu feels hostile towards Kelsey, a white woman who visits the salon for Bo Derek style cornrows. Kelsey, who is full of “the nationalism of liberal Americans” (232) has invaded one of the few spaces in which Ifemelu feels she belongs, and her ignorance about black hair grates.

At the height of Ifemelu’s attempt to assimilate into American life, she hunts for a professional job after graduating university. Early on, Ifemelu is told by Aunty Uju that “‘If you have braids, they will think you are unprofessional’” (146). Though Ifemelu has worn braids her whole life, she acquiesces to America standards and gets her hair straightened using chemicals and heat tools. Her hair stylist declares that Ifemelu now has “‘white girl swag’” (251), though the chemicals burn Ifemelu’s scalp and cause her hair to thin and…

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