‘Sometimes in America Race Is Class’: The Erasure of Class under Race in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah

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As it is being absorbed into mainstream reading circles, it is timely to ask what accounts for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah’s enormous commercial success, given that large portions of the novel are given over to withering scrutiny of white America’s abysmal history of race relations. Americanah complicates the black-white binary by introducing into the equation “non-American Blacks” (that is to say, Blacks from Africa). As Ifemelu writes in one of her blogs, “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black” (273). But this interpellation, “black,” is not part of the self-definition of Africans, whose history, even in America, has evolved rather differently, even separately, from that of African Americans. Adichie’s transnational, diasporic perspective allows her to play with racism on multiple levels, not only white-on-black but also white-on-African; African American-on-African; American-on-African, and so on. This, then, may constitute one of Adichie’s biggest contributions to black American literature: that she extends its national contours by undoing the black-white binary to reveal deeper, older, and broader transnational intersections of race. Yet, for all its promise of a sustained critique of American race relations from a diasporic standpoint, I argue that the novel dispenses with class as a powerful social determinant even as class surreptitiously underwrites much of the novel’s action. From struggling to make ends meet, the immigrant Ifemelu goes on to become an American citizen primarily through her immersion in privileged social circles and her relationships with affluent and well-connected American boyfriends. When she leaves America to return to Nigeria, her social privilege remains unmarked, and her Nigerian lover Obinze’s murky and corrupt source of wealth goes unquestioned. What started out as an insightful and witty expose turns into a standard romantic story when Ifemelu reunites in Nigeria with Obinze, who is by a now a married man with a child. Returning to the question with which I began and which I will now be in a position to properly address: Americanah is a popular work of fiction because ultimately it employs all the traditional tropes of a romantic love story and features an aspirational heroine with whom middle-class readers can relate.


Presented at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention, Austin, Jan. 2016.