Nigerian Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “I Became Black in America”

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“I became black in America and I really hadn’t thought of myself as black in Nigeria. I think that identity in Nigeria was ethnic, religious… but race just wasn’t present.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most celebrated young authors writing today. Her most recent novel, Americanah, tells the story of the journey of Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant making a new home in the United States. The New York Times called Americanah “witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic… a novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us.” In addition to winning a number of literary awards, Adichie’s TEDx on the necessity of feminism has gained more than 1.5 million YouTube views and is featured in Beyonce’s single, “Flawless.”

As it turns out, Adichie’s story is as interesting as her character’s. Like Ifemelu, Adichie emigrated from Nigeria to the United States, where she discovered the color of her skin “came with baggage and with all of these assumptions.” At a recent event hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, Adichie talked about her own experience of coming to identify as “black” in America:

Among other things, Adichie tells NPR’s Michele Norris that she found herself “taking on a new identity. Or no, rather, I found a new identity thrust upon me.”

I became black in America and I really hadn’t thought of myself as black in Nigeria. I think that identity in Nigeria was ethnic, religious…but race just wasn’t present. …

I like to say I’m happily black. So I don’t have a problem at all, sort of having skin the color of chocolate. But in this country I came to realize…that meant something, that it came with baggage and with all of these assumptions. And that the idea of black achievement was a remarkable thing. Whereas for me in Nigeria, it wasn’t. It was not. And I think that’s when I started to internalize what it meant and that’s when I started to push back. So for a long time I didn’t want to identify as black.

Finding that identity was a long process. Chimamanda went on a “self-styled reading journey,” reading both American and African-American history books to better understand the root of racial stereotypes in America.

When you’re an immigrant and you come to this country, it’s very easy to internalize the mainstream ideas. It’s easy, for example, to think, “Oh, the ghettos are full of black people because they’re just lazy and they like to live in the ghettos,” because that’s sort of what mainstream thinking is. And then when you read about the American housing policies for the past 100 years it starts to make sense. And then it forces you to let go of these simple stereotypes. It was a conscious effort and it was an interesting journey, but still a journey.

Adichie says she is very happy when readers tell her that Americanah has affected how they see the world.

I think that as human beings we want to see ourselves reflected in stories. And I think that [Americanah] for many people is a reflection of a story that’s their’s but hasn’t really been told. We haven’t really seen that story in contemporary literature. I think that it makes people uncomfortable, and I find this particularly in the U.S. …I find that American readers, there’s often a defensiveness…

But I also find that for a number of people it’s also a learning, too. The people who said to me that the book made them think differently about things, and I really value that. Lately, I’ve been thinking of the idea of storytelling as a social utility: how we can through telling stories understand one another better.”

h/t Colorlines’s Carla Murphy

Note: In an earlier version of this story, Michele Norris’s name was misspelled. It has been corrected.

Charina Nadura is the digital assistant at BillMoyers.com. She was previously a multimedia news production fellow at Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. While there, she helped produce segments on climate change, the fast-food workers movement and the Philippines. Her documentary project The Second Generation Filipino was shown at the San Francisco Immigrant Film Fest in 2012. Follow her on Twitter: @CharinaNadura.

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