A young woman enters a salon in order to have her hair braided for her journey home to Nigeria. Her name is Ifemelu. She has lived in America for ten years, at first to go to Princeton, and up until this point in her life because she felt as though she had to stay. She had the opportunity to leave Nigeria and make a better life for herself and thus feels pressure to manifest her dreams into reality. Ifemelu uses the time she has at the hairdresser to reflect on her life thus far. Musing over her childhood and migration to America, we are introduced to the character Race. Ifemelu is the face of the story but Race is the main character, manifesting itself through the way Ifemelu presents her hair. The performance of hair presentation in Americanah serves as an example of the way racialized societies were created in America. Black hair in America is treated differently than black hair in her home country. The way that Ifemelu chooses to perform with her hair is defined through the way Race affects minority groups. Ifemelu’s decisions on her hair and how Ifemelu performs with her hair characterizes the racial systems of America. Race in Americanah affects the way hair is used as a performance, which reflects the black experience in America and serves as evidence for how America created race.
Race affects the way Ifemelu chooses to perform with her hair throughout her time in America. Much of Americanah takes place in the hairdresser in Trenton that cuts back and forth between the present time and Ifemelu’s own memories of her life. Race is first introduced into the story on the journey to the hair salon itself. Ifemelu has to take the train from Princeton, described as clean, modern and full of white people, to Trenton, described as dirty, covered in graffiti and full of black people. In this case, Ifemelu is making the trip to have braids put into her hair because braids represent the Nigerian with which she is trying to reconnect. The racialized society of New Jersey represents the standard for hair in America. Natural black hair and braids are considered to be “ghetto” and “unprofessional” and because Ifemelu lives in a college town, she has to travel to receive that look. Once she has arrived at the hairdresser, Ifemelu takes the time to look back onto the other times she has felt the need to solidify her place in society through her hair presentation. Upon her arrival to America for college, Ifemelu receives the advice to relax her hair if she is ever going to find a job. Ifemelu succumbs to this societal standard and has her hair professionally relaxed, which causes her a great deal of physical pain. Her scalp bleeds and scars, yet this sacrifice is not in vain, as she earns the position. “Later, after she breezed through the job interview, and the woman shook her hand and said she would be a wonderful fit to the company, she wondered if the woman would have felt the same way had she walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro.” (Adichie 253) Ifemelu’s adoption of white beauty standards helped her secure a job in America. She did not take any chances on whether her natural look would have granted her the same opportunity, however, it is clear that her employer appreciated her look in an area of town previously described as predominantly white. While Ifemelu’s relaxed hair enabled her to enter the American workforce, she is held back by the style in her daily life. “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.”(Adichie 257) Ifemelu has lost part of herself by trying to appease the world around her. The performance of Ifemelu relaxing her hair represents how Race controls her entire life. She is very rarely looked at as a smart woman from Nigeria who is attending Princeton for higher education. Instead, she is looked at as an acceptable black woman due to her adoption of white beauty qualities, and others would not grant her the advantages that accompany submissive blackness if she pushed such beauty standards away.
Hair performance has characterized being black in America. From wearing hair in a natural style, to in braids, to straight, the way a black person chooses to present their hair determines the way they are viewed by society. Throughout history, there has been a feminization of whiteness and a masculinization of blackness. This means that the standard for beauty in America has always been the white woman. Those who are not white women learn to adopt as much of that identity as possible. For African Americans, this idea is performed through hair. People have felt the need to relax their hair or wear wigs in order to fit in, especially in corporate America. The specific performance of braiding hair, or wearing braided hair define the black experience because it forces people to be looked at as truly black. The adoption of white identities as a black person never truly change the way their skin tone is acknowledged, but it does change the effect of that skin tone on other people. They are still black but they are not Black. They still have dark skin but they are no longer looked at through the same stereotypical lens as those who don’t adopt the standards. African American people who choose to celebrate their culture through the way they perform with their hair are often seen as radical and even dangerous, while the groups of people who do adopt such standards are often viewed as compliant and safe to be associated with. Hair braiding is part of a rich and deep culture, and wearing braided hair is a self-expression of coming to terms with your black identity and embracing it. This idea is illustrated right at the beginning of Americanah because when Ifemelu is leaving the United States to go home to Nigeria, she is coming to terms with her African identity. Her entire American experience was defined by the ways she tried to fit into society. During this time, Ifemelu lost part of herself. The decision to move back to Nigeria is significant because Ifemelu realizes that she needs to be more in tune with her African identity. These feelings are then performed through the act of getting her hair braided as Ifemulu’s rejection of the white supremacist ideals in society and the celebration of her heritage. Hair braiding in America serves as the acceptance of black identity and the expression of black culture in America relating to the rejection of white societal standards.
Race and racial systems were created in America, and these systems continue to shape America today. Racial stratification occurred due to the migration of many different racial groups as well as the forced migration of African people due to the slave trade. When countries were separated by race and had little interaction with the world around them, race did not exist because everyone looked and acted similarly. The emergence of societies with many different races in one area, such as America, created race because race became one of the main differences between members of society. Additionally, the formation of the slave trade helped fuel race because it put a specific group of people who all shared similar features in a low position in society. Over time, these groups were separated and validity was based on skin color. Race has always existed, however race has grown into something that defines a person’s worth and status. Ifemelu experiences this idea after she moves to America. She finds herself continuously grouped with African American people, even though she cannot relate to them culturally. “So what if you weren’t “black” in your country? You’re in America now.” (Adichie 273) Ifemelu’s experience with race in America also serves as an example of how the racial systems that were created in America now shape America itself. Having different races living in one society is an idea that is limited to some countries of the world, America being one of them. Because this situation is relatively unique, the racial systems in America characterize American society as that with races. Furthermore, the races in America develop unique cultural norms that push them away from each other. These ideas create an America that is well known today: a society in a feedback loop of creating races that create America.
Americanah presents Race as a character, and Race’s interaction with Ifemelu affects the way hair is used as a performance. It characterizes the black experience in America, and serves as evidence for how America created race. Ifemelu’s American experience is dominated by the way she chooses to present her hair at various times in her life. Hair braiding is a form of expression of black identity, while hair relaxing is a form of adopting white standards of beauty in order to fit into society better. Americanah as a whole serves as an example of how America created race through the separation of people based on skin color, a new phenomenon as people previously lived in countries with others who looked like them. Because of this, race continues to shape America, an example being the way members of the black community choose to present their hair and what hair says about a person’s status. “So is it just me or is that the perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair.” (Adichie 367)
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah: Anchor Books, a Division of Random House LLC, 2014.
Root, The, director. Black Women's Hair and Untangling Its Cultural Identity. YouTube, YouTube, 12 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTFr7Sx_Z_w.
This video presents similar ideas as Americanah and is another example of how hair presentation can be viewed as a performance. Hair presentation is used to tell a lot about a person and represents cultural identity. [SOURCE: The Root]
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