Americanah

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Hair Symbol Icon
Much of Americanah takes place as Ifemelu sits in a salon getting her hair braided. For Ifemelu personally, her hair represents her struggle for confidence and an identity as both a Nigerian immigrant and a black American. In Nigeria, Ifemelu always braided her hair, but when she comes to America she learns that she is supposed to relax (straighten) her hair with chemicals or else people will think she is unprofessional. She does so, and feels that a part of herself has died with her hair’s natural curl. Thus the cultural pressure for black women like Ifemelu to straighten, dye, or somehow make their hair look more like a white woman’s hair becomes a symbol of the racism inherent in American culture. Racism is not just explicitly racist acts, but also social hierarchies like the fact that most popular women’s magazines offer no hair-styling tips for black women.

Hair Quotes in Americanah

The Americanah quotes below all refer to the symbol of Hair. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor edition of Americanah published in 2014.
Chapter 19 Quotes

“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.

Related Characters: Ifemelu
Related Symbols: Hair
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote also centers around the symbol of hair, and black women's hair in particular—an issue that has suddenly become personal for Ifemelu. She just got her hair straightened for a job interview, because she has learned that black women's hair, if left naturally curly or in braids, is considered "unprofessional." The injustice of this suddenly strikes Ifemelu once her hair is actually straightened—not just that it's racist for society to have a standard of beauty and professionalism that centers around whiteness, but also because she feels like a part of her own identity has been burned away when her hair is burned straight. She, like so many other immigrants, is forced to subdue parts of her identity, and even appearance, in order to fit into American culture without being judged or dismissed.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Americanah quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Get the entire Americanah LitChart as a printable PDF.
Americanah.pdf.medium

Hair Symbol Timeline in Americanah

The timeline below shows where the symbol Hair appears in Americanah. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
...Nigerian woman living in Princeton, New Jersey, must travel to another town to get her hair braided properly. She likes Princeton, but its population is mostly white and so there are... (full context)
Identity Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Back in the present, Ifemelu gets off the train and takes a taxi to the hair braiding salon. She is relieved that her taxi driver isn’t Nigerian, as Nigerian taxi drivers... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...Halima, and Aisha. Ifemelu haggles with Mariama and Mariama says that Aisha will do her hair. It is very hot inside and there is no air conditioning. A Nigerian movie is... (full context)
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...at all. Aisha finishes the customer she’s working on. She asks Ifemelu what color of hair attachments she wants, and disapproves when Ifemelu requests a more natural color than the usual... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Aisha asks Ifemelu why she doesn’t relax her hair with chemicals, and Ifemelu finds herself preaching (as she often does to black women) about... (full context)
Chapter 3
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Back at the hair salon, Mariama leaves to pick up Chinese food for everyone. Ifemelu says she doesn’t want... (full context)
Identity Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Ifemelu slips into a memory about her mother’s hair when she was growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. It was long, thick, and beautiful, and... (full context)
Chapter 6
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
The next weekend Aunty Uju takes Ifemelu to her upper-class hair salon, and says that The General gave her the money. Ifemelu comments on how the... (full context)
Chapter 9
Identity Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Back in the present, Mariama returns to the hair salon with the Chinese food. Halima’s customer, who is very young, talks about her children.... (full context)
Chapter 11
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...exams. She immediately says that she needs to take out her braids and relax her hair for her interviews, as Americans think braids are unprofessional. Ifemelu is mystified by this. (full context)
Chapter 18
Identity Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Back in the present, two new customers come into the hair salon. One asks about the many Nigerian DVDs in the salon. She says she is... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
A young white woman comes into the salon and asks to get her hair braided. She is “aggressively friendly,” and introduces herself as Kelsey. She asks Mariama about her... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
...right now, or why she’s moving back to Nigeria. Mariama asks Kelsey if she wants hair attachments, and Kelsey is surprised, as she assumed that black women with braided hair just... (full context)
Chapter 19
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...and Aunty Uju both tell Ifemelu to get rid of her braids and straighten her hair for her job interview. She buys a relaxer but it doesn’t do anything, so she... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...if it would have been the same if she were wearing her “God-given halo of hair, the Afro.” Her parents rejoice when she tells them that she can become an American... (full context)
Chapter 20
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Ifemelu’s hair starts to fall out. Wambui tells her it’s the relaxing chemicals that are making at... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
...angry, and especially angry when she looks up the woman and sees her confident, flowing hair. She knows she is being unreasonable, but she gets her things and leaves. Curt apologizes,... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Curt comes by later with lots of flowers, and they take a walk, Ifemelu’s hair covered in a headwrap. After that Ifemelu calls in sick for three more days, and... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Ifemelu peruses HappilyKinkyNappy.com and finds a whole online community of black women embracing their natural hair. Ifemelu starts ordering homemade products for her hair and feels better about herself. One day... (full context)
Chapter 21
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Aunty Uju compliments Ifemelu about making Curt like her, even with her hair “like that.” Uju complains that Dike has written an essay about “not knowing what he... (full context)
Chapter 31
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...all of them with white or light-skinned women on the covers. Even the makeup and hair advice inside had nothing to offer for black women. Curt apologized, but that night Ifemelu... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...friend are both “Michelle Obama groupies.” But the white friend doesn’t understand that Michelle Obama’s hair doesn’t naturally look that way. Ifemelu then says that black women’s hair is a “perfect... (full context)
Chapter 34
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
One time an older white woman asks to touch Ifemelu’s hair, and she lets her. She doesn’t see a problem with it, but it clearly upsets... (full context)
Chapter 41
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
Back at the hair salon, Aisha complains that her Igbo boyfriend won’t show up to talk to Ifemelu. Ifemelu... (full context)
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
...boyfriend tomorrow and talk to him about marrying Aisha. Aisha thanks Ifemelu and finishes her hair. Ifemelu wonders why she has made such a promise, but feels like it is the... (full context)
Chapter 48
Identity Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
...there has some kind of “self-styled quirkiness” to show how chic they are. They discuss hair salons, and how ridiculous it is that African hairdressers always assume you want to relax... (full context)