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Cultural Criticism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Americanah, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon

As with the themes of racism and identity, Americanah allows Adichie to observe and critique the cultures of Nigeria, America, and England through scenes that are sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic. In Nigeria (particularly Lagos), Adichie focuses on the culture of corruption and materialism, where most people get rich through fraud or corruption, officials expect bribes, and women date or marry a man based on his wealth and prestige. Everyone is expected to grovel before the rich, who are expected to ostentatiously show off their wealth by visiting Western countries and sending their children to Western schools. This leads to a Nigeria where essentials are lacking for most of the population (there is rarely consistent light or water), and Western culture and whiteness are idealized over Nigerian culture.

In America, Adichie focuses mostly on the racial hierarchy and prejudices Ifemelu discovers there, but she also comments on the prevalence of depression and anxiety in American society. She especially focuses on liberal white Americans, who like to criticize their own country but still imagine it as superior to others, the one dispensing charity instead of needing it. Adichie spends less time on England/Europe, and much of that involves racism, but she also highlights the fear of immigrants—a fear that ignores England’s own colonial past, as the people from the countries England itself created eventually make their way to England. Along with all these serious criticisms, the novel also contains many lighthearted observations about the different cultures, like ways of speaking or dressing. Americanah is a large and complex enough book that it can encompass individual stories of romance and personal growth, searing critiques of racism, and many astute observations about the cultures of Nigeria, England, and America all at once.

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Cultural Criticism Quotes in Americanah

Below you will find the important quotes in Americanah related to the theme of Cultural Criticism.
Chapter 2 Quotes

And after you register your own company, you must find a white man. Find one of your white friends in England. Tell everybody he is your General Manager. You will see how doors will open for you because you have an oyinbo General Manager. Even Chief has some white men that he brings in for show when he needs them. That is how Nigeria works. I’m telling you.

Related Characters: Nneoma (speaker), Obinze Maduewesi, Chief
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Obinze's cousin Nneoma has just gotten him some work with the "big man" Chief, and now Nneoma explains how Obinze can get even richer. On one level, this quote is part of Adichie's ironic, sometimes humorous criticism of Nigerian culture. The concept Nneoma outlines touches on the corruption Adichie sees at all levels of the Nigerian government, in which flattery, deceit, and an extravagant show of wealth are seen as common and even necessary traits.

This particular kind of corruption also deals with race and racism, however, as it's suggested that (black) Nigerian "big men" must hire white men to act like their "boss" in order to seem legitimate. The Nigerian is the real boss, but the English employee's whiteness gives him a kind of respectability and power (in society's eyes) that no amount of money can buy. Even in Nigeria, where race is much less of an issue than it is in America, whiteness is still seen as inherently better.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

“Ginika, just make sure you can still talk to us when you come back,” Priye said.

“She’ll come back and be a serious Americanah like Bisi,” Ranyinudo said.

They roared with laughter, at that word “Americanah,” wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke.

Related Characters: Ranyinudo (speaker), Priye (speaker), Ginika
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Adichie brings up for the first time the term "Americanah," which also gives the book its title. Ifemelu's friend Ginika is about to move with her family to America, and her friends tease her about how this might change her personality. It has become a stereotype that after living in America, Nigerians purposefully try to act "special" and pretend that they are foreigners in their own country—as the students say here, speaking with an accent or even pretending to no longer understand the Yoruba language.

This is another one of Adichie's critiques of Nigerian culture—a kind of self-hatred, or assumption that Western countries like America are automatically superior to Nigeria or other African countries. This comes from a past of Western colonialism and racism, but it is still present in Nigerian culture, even in jokes like this. On a more personal level, the idea of an "Americanah" is just something to laugh about for Ifemelu and her friends at this point, but, decades later, Ifemelu herself will return from America to Nigeria and be a true "Americanah." Ifemelu won't have to pretend to be foreign though—she really will feel like a stranger in her own country, and will have to reconcile her identity to this fact.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“You know, we live in an ass-licking economy. The biggest problem in this country is not corruption. The problem is that there are many qualified people who are not where they are supposed to be because they won’t lick anybody’s ass, or they don’t know which ass to lick or they don’t even know how to lick an ass. I’m lucky to be licking the right ass.”

Related Characters: Aunty Uju (speaker), The General
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu's Aunty Uju gives a rather straightforward "lesson" about how Nigerian society works. At this point Uju is the mistress of the General, a powerful military figure in the Nigerian government, who provides Uju with a house and many gifts. Here Adichie again criticizes the corruption in Nigerian society, albeit in a humorous way. What seems most frustrating (but also amusing) to some of the characters in the book isn't just the corruption in Nigeria, but also how obvious and open it is. As Uju says, the entire economy is based on flattery and manipulation, and the best way to succeed is to acknowledge this fact and work within the system.

Chapter 11 Quotes

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.”

There it was again, the strange naivete with which Aunty Uju had covered herself like a blanket. Sometimes, while having a conversation, it would occur to Ifemelu that Aunty Uju had deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place. Obinze said it was the exaggerated gratitude that came with immigrant insecurity.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Aunty Uju (speaker), Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 146-147
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunty Uju has just passed her exams and is licensed to become a doctor in America, so she is planning out what she has to do to get a job practicing medicine—and part of this involves straightening her hair. This quote is an important explanation of the symbol of hair (and particularly black women's hair) in the novel, as Uju has learned that for a black woman to wear her hair naturally or in braids is considered "unprofessional"—or essentially, not white enough to be professional. Here Adichie is critiquing American culture for the way racism is ingrained at every level—even including standards of beauty and fashion—but also showing another way Uju's identity has been "subdued" by this society. In order to protect herself, it seems that Uju has given up an important part of her character, and this feels tragic to Ifemelu.

Obinze then has a good explanation for this (that immigrants are taught to be so grateful for being allowed to live in America that they submit to its society's racist practices), but it's also worth noting that Obinze himself is not yet an immigrant—he's still in Nigeria. He can observe this phenomenon from the outside, but it's only once he's illegally in England that he too can understand real racism and the pressures to conform and subdue one's own identity.

Chapter 16 Quotes

It was like a conjurer’s trick, the swift disappearance of his hostility. His face sank into a grin. She, too, was the help. The universe was once again arranged as it should be.

“How are you doing? Know where she wants me to start?” he asked.

“Upstairs,” she said, letting him in, wondering how all that cheeriness could have existed earlier in his body. She would never forget him… and she would begin the blog post “Sometimes in America, Race is Class” with the story of his dramatic change, and end with: It didn’t matter to him how much money I had. As far as he was concerned I did not fit as the owner of that stately house because of the way I looked. In America’s public discourse, “Blacks” as a whole are often lumped with “Poor Whites.” Not Poor Blacks and Poor Whites. But Blacks and Poor Whites. A curious thing indeed.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Kimberly
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

Kimberly has called a carpet cleaner to come to her house, and the man acted confused and hostile when Ifemelu answered the door (Kimberly's house is huge and in a fancy neighborhood). When Ifemelu made it clear that she was "the help" rather than the homeowner, however, the carpet cleaner immediately became friendly. It's thus suggested that the carpet cleaner initially acted hostile because Ifemelu was "out of place"—as a black woman, it seemed strange to the carpet cleaner that she would be in that house in that neighborhood, and perhaps the carpet cleaner also didn't like the idea of having to work for a black woman. But once Ifemelu assumed her proper place (as a worker for the rich white homeowners) then everything was once again in its proper order and the carpet cleaner became comfortable and friendly.

For her part, Ifemelu is mystified but also hurt by this interaction, and the realization that her unique identity is, in society's eyes, less noticeable than her race. Ifemelu then goes on to later write a blog post about this, critiquing American society again for its inherent racial hierarchy, and also the way different groups are portrayed in the media. Here she particularly points out that blacks are presented as a homogenous group, and that group is assumed to be poor.

Chapter 18 Quotes

She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.

Related Characters: Ifemelu, Kelsey
Page Number: 232-233
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene takes place in the hair salon where Ifemelu is getting her hair braided before she returns to Nigeria. The women working there are from different African countries, and they focus on black African customers. A white girl named Kelsey then comes in and asks to get her hair braided. She seems well-meaning, but then says several ignorant and offensive things as she tries to make conversation. Here Ifemelu gets annoyed by Kelsey and makes an obervation about some liberal Americans—they feel comfortable criticizing their own country, but still dislike it when a foreigner criticizes it. Immigrants are supposed to be "grateful" for the privilege of living in America, because its assumed that even if America has flaws, it's still on an entirely different level from African countries. This kind of assumed superiority and condescension (whether intended or not) is an aspect of American culture that Adichie often critiques in the book, as it is particularly evident when Americans speak about Africans or African countries.

Chapter 27 Quotes

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. Yet he understood. It had to be comforting, this denial of history.

Related Characters: Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 320
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Obinze reflects on the current environment in Europe, in which white people feel that their culture is under attack and fear that they will be "overrun" by immigrants from Africa or the Middle East. This is one of Adichie's overarching cultural criticisms of the West—that wealthy countries want to exploit poor countries, but then Western citizens feel afraid or hateful when the people from those exploited countries seek asylum.

This idea also shows how race and racism affect even people's views of history and memory. Adichie suggests that white Europeans choose to forget their history of colonialism precisely because its victims were so far away, and were people of color. And once this history comes back to haunt them, in the form of refugees and immigrants from countries exploited by colonial powers, it's easier for white Westerners to distance themselves from their past and only deal with their present fear—essentially separating themselves from history, and pretending that present events are happening in a vacuum, without precedent.

Chapter 29 Quotes

He was making fun of his wife, but Obinze knew, from the muted awe in his tone, that it was mockery colored by respect, mockery of what he believed, despite himself, to be inherently superior. Obinze had remembered how Kayode had often said about Emenike in secondary school: He can read all the books he wants but the bush is still in his blood.

Related Characters: Obinze Maduewesi, Kayode, Emenike, Georgina
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote refers to Emenike, Obinze's old classmate from Nigeria, who has now come to England and become rich and successful, and has also married a white Englishwoman. Even as a teenager, Obinze remembers, Emenike was ambitious and would pretend to be richer than he was (he was actually from a very poor bush village). Now Emenike has assumed a new identity—that of the successful Englishman who also retains his Nigerian roots. Obinze will later learn that Emenike really is romantically in love with his wife (Georgina), but here Obinze only notices how Emenike holds his wife to a different standard because she is white. Emenike might complain about her or make fun of her, but he still considers Georgina inherently superior to himself. This is another of Adichie's cultural criticisms of how race is viewed in both the West and Nigeria—whiteness is assumed to be best, and this view is so normalized by those in power that even black Africans have developed an inferiority complex about their blackness.

This quote also suggests that Emenike may have been so successful in England precisely because he is so skilled at assuming new identities to fit his situation. When he was friends with the rich teens like Obinze, he pretended to be rich, and now he pretends to be fully English (but he also knows how to flatter white people and play his role as a "grateful immigrant"). Seemingly no one has any idea who the "real" Emenike is, as he has learned to adapt so well that he has no fixed identity or personality aside from his adaptiveness and ambition to better his social standing.

Chapter 30 Quotes

Obinze watched him leave. He was going to tick on a form that his client was willing to be removed. “Removed.” That word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.

Related Characters: Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 345
Explanation and Analysis:

Obinze has just been caught living without a visa in England, and now he is about to be deported back to Nigeria. He is allowed to see a lawyer, but Obinze feels defeated and decides he's not even going to argue his case. Because of this, he will now be "removed," and this word makes Obinze feel like a thing to be discarded, rather than a human being moving from one country to another. This is another instance of Obinze feeling "indentity-less" as someone living illegally in England, as if Obinze himself has disappeared and he has either "become" Vincent Obi (whose ID he was using) or has become nothing at all. This poignant moment also allows Adichie to critique the dehumanizing language used to describe immigrants and refugees, particularly those from non-white countries. It is much easier to lump them all together and dehumanize them than to deal with them as real people with real needs and desires—but acting this way allows white Westerners to avoid any sense of culpability for their fate.

Chapter 31 Quotes

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Curt
Page Number: 359
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu is at a party, and addresses a black Haitian woman who claims she had dated a white man for three years, and "race was never an issue for them." Ifemelu is a little drunk, so she decides not to let the issue pass, and she accuses the woman of lying. Ifemelu then gives this statement that encapsulates many of her (and Adichie's) ideas on race in America.

Because of this quote's subject matter and position in the narrative (right after Ifemelu and Curt's breakup), it's clear that Ifemelu is here referencing her own past relationship with Curt, and finally admitting some things to herself that she had been unable to see when she was actually dating Curt—like the fact that there was always a kind of separation between them because of their experiences of the world, and the way society viewed them racially. In private they experienced a real connection, and were in love with each other romantically, but in public they were always separated by the issue of racial identity and experience. Ifemelu had an entirely different experience because she was black—meaning that American culture treated her as different or inferior—while Curt had no idea this was going on, and was inherently unable to understand it. The privilege of white ignorance is a divide in interracial relationships, Ifemelu suggests, because the non-white partner will always seem to be offended or hurt by things that the white partner doesn't even have to recognize as existing.

These are issues of racial justice and social criticism, but here Adichie also shows how these issues affect one's personal life, like one's identity and romantic relationships. Ifemelu's identity is inherently divided from Curt's because of their different experiences, and the way that society sees them affects their relationship even in private. Essentially Adichie is saying that nothing exists in a vaccuum, and these issues of racism and isolation affect even the most seemingly private of human affairs.

The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker)
Page Number: 366-367
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from one of Ifemelu's blog posts, and relates to her earlier discussion of her own relationship with Curt. She here takes her ideas on race as related to romantic love and puts them in the wider context of "the problem of race in America." Ifemelu suggests that the best way to "cure" racism is for more white people and black people to fall in love—truly in love, not just a "safe, shallow love." (The "breathing" language here is also reminiscent of Ifemelu's first true love, Obinze, whom she "wanted to breathe the same air as.") But then Ifemelu laments the fact that American society has made it so difficult for this to happen. Ifemelu has just discussed the separation between herself and Curt during their romance because she had a totally different experience of the world, as a black woman, than Curt did as a white man, despite the fact that they were lovers and equals when they were alone together. American society, whether intentionally or not, places obstacles in the way of interracial relationships, in that the non-white partner will always be treated and viewed differently from the white partner, and the couple itself will be seen as something "different" or even dangerous. This is just another way cultural racism affects one's personal life, as Adichie continues to explore the nuances of race in America.

Chapter 46 Quotes

“Yes. She approached me, but their budget was too small for me. That girl never understood the first rule of life in this Lagos. You do not marry the man you love. You marry the man who can best maintain you.”

Related Characters: Priye (speaker), Ifemelu, Ranyinudo
Page Number: 492
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that she's back in Nigeria, Ifemelu tries to reconnect with some of her old school friends. One of these is Priye, a woman who is now a wedding planner. Here Priye discusses a friend's wedding that she was considering planning, and then gives a half-joking statement about romance in Lagos, Nigeria. Adichie has spent most of the book's middle section critiquing American society, but in the final sections she turns her attention back to Nigeria, and offers a cultural criticism of Lagos society in particular. Much of this centers around romantic love, and also connects with the kind of corruption, flattery, and extravagance that Adichie has previously criticized in the Nigerian "big men."

Most of the romantic relationships Adichie portrays in her book are unhealthy or lacking in some way, and in Nigeria she often sees that unhealthiness as related to money and prestige. Romance is more transactional in Lagos, as Adichie sees it—women are supposed to find the richest and most powerful man, rather than the man they actually like most. It is also assumed that women should keep moving from one man to another in order to climb the social ladder—dating progressively richer and more powerful men. On the male side, "big men" assume that their money or power can buy them anything, and so if they find a woman attractive or desirable, they assume that they can "have" her. This is basically an exchange of sex for money, with a show of beauty and prestige mixed in, and very little real romance or love.

Chapter 48 Quotes

He was looking at her, soliciting her agreement with his eyes: they were not supposed to watch Nollywood, people like them, and if they did, then only as an amusing anthropology.

“I like Nollywood,” Ifemelu said, even though she, too, thought Nollywood more theater than film. The urge to be contrarian was strong. If she set herself apart, perhaps she would be less of the person she feared she had become. “Nollywood may be melodramatic, but life in Nigeria is very melodramatic.”

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Fred
Page Number: 504
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu has gone to a "Nigerpolitan" meeting—a group of various Nigerians who have lived for a long time in Western countries, returned to Nigeria, and now feel out of place. Ifemelu finds herself relating to a lot of their stories and complaints (mostly about how unsophisticated Nigerian culture is, how it doesn't have food "they" can eat, etc.) but then feels uncomfortable about this fact. Ifemelu doesn't want to be the kind of "Americanah" who returns to Nigeria only to look down upon it, or to feel disconnected and separate from her home culture. At the same time, Ifemelu is still feeling confused and conflicted about her identity. At this meeting, at least, she realizes the kind of person she doesn't want to become, and so she purposefully goes against her actual feelings and defends Nollywood (the Nigerian film industry).