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“My full and cool hair would work if I were interviewing to be a backup singer in a jazz band, but I need to look professional for this interview, and professional means straight is best but if it’s going to be curly then it has to be the white kind of curly, loose curls or, at worst, spiral curls but never kinky.”

Throughout Americanah, the presentation of African and African-American beauty and femininity is a prominent point of discussion within Ifemelu’s internal monologue and between the main characters. Adichie often puts emphasis on cultural spaces that hold a significance within the African diaspora because of their connection to grooming and personal presentation. Towards the very beginning of the book, Adichie describes the African hair salon and immediately makes clear the emphasis many women of African descent place on their hair in both America and Africa.

African hair is not only linked to personal preference but to survival itself. The novel makes clear that in order to thrive in a place where blackness — and anything that signifies it — is stigmatized and persecuted, it is essential to attempt to assimilate to the dominant culture.

Later, she said, “I have to take my braids out for my interviews and relax my hair… If you have braids, they will think you are unprofessional.”

“So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” Ifemelu asked.
“I have told you what they told me. You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.”

The chemical straightening of hair throughout the novel seems to not only represent a change in aesthetics but also a change in personal identity and allegiance. Straight hair means cultural dissonance while natural, kinky hair means pride in one’s origins. Although this broad statement definitely does not ring true in reality for many black women, the way Adichie characterizes Ifemelu leads me to believe that her character views it that way although she also seems to recognize the necessity in changing yourself in order to navigate effectively in a harsh world with varying standards of beauty.

“Just a little burn,” the hairdresser said. “But look how pretty it is. Wow, girl, you’ve got the white-girl swing!”

Her hair was hanging down rather than standing up, straight and sleek, parted at the side and curving to a slight bob at her chin. The verve was gone. She did not recognize herself. She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss.

Although Americanah is not a novel explicitly about the politics of African diasporic presentation, Adichie’s commentary on it added to the richness of the novel in my eyes. It is very rare for me to read a book that seems to mirror some of the experiences that have permeated my life both as an adolescent and a young woman.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on black hair. Channel 4. UK.

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