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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.
Identity Theme Icon

Identity is an important theme in the novel, as the plot follows Ifemelu and Obinze growing up and finding their place in the world. Because of their life situations, identity as a person is inextricably linked to racial and national identity for both these main characters. When they are teenagers Ifemelu is already smart and outspoken, and Obinze is calm and thoughtful, and as they grow up these qualities are then affected by outside cultural forces. In America, Ifemelu must struggle with her identity as an American-African, or someone seen as an outsider. First she deals with this by taking on an American accent and straightening her hair—seemingly giving in to a new identity as an American. She even has to use a fake identity to look for work, as she only has a student visa. Later Ifemelu gains confidence and comes to embrace her Nigerianness, even as she adapts more easily to American culture and finds success there. She gives up her American accent and lets her hair grow naturally, while at the same time dating a rich white man and later winning a fellowship to Princeton. This blend of cultural identities seems healthy and natural for Ifemelu, but it then means that she inhabits a kind of in-between place, where she is neither wholly American nor (when she returns home) wholly Nigerian: she is an “Americanah.”

Obinze has a more difficult experience adapting to a new cultural identity in England. His visa expires and he is forced to take on other people’s identities to find work, and to buy into a green-card marriage. Everywhere there is a fear of immigrants, and Obinze feels invisible and worthless. He is finally caught and deported back to Nigeria and then sets about building a new identity for himself, having been forced to give up his old dream of America. The new Obinze makes lots of money, marries a beautiful but uninteresting woman, and becomes a Nigerian “big man.” He is seen as a huge success by his peers, but it all feels slightly false to Obinze until Ifemelu returns. Ifemelu, having her own identity crisis in returning to Nigeria and feeling out of place, then reconnects with Obinze and the two begin to work toward reconciling the differing identities they have constructed in their separation. Apart from these two, many secondary characters also relate to this theme, like Emenike, who totally changes his personality to become a cultured and wealthy British citizen. Overall the situations and characterizations of the novel show the many forces working upon the creation of someone’s identity: cultural, racial, and economic ones, as well as personal will and preference.

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Identity Quotes in Americanah

Below you will find the important quotes in Americanah related to the theme of Identity.
Chapter 4 Quotes

She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.

Related Characters: Ifemelu, Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from the same scene in which Obinze and Ifemelu first meet, but now they have begun explicitly talking and flirting with each other, and are alone together—experiencing a first intimate moment of connection. Adichie continues the language of teenage romance and young love here, but also introduces a crucial aspect of the relationship between the two protagonists—it is not only based on romantic love for each other, but also on self-love, or a particular way the relationship makes both of them feel more affirmed and comfortable with their identities. At this point in the story this particular quality is just another aspect of a young crush, but as Ifemelu goes through different relationships later in life, it will seem more and more important to her. With Obinze she can truly be herself—she doesn't have to modify or suppress her identity for someone else's sake, or explain why she does what she does.


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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 9 Quotes

“Dike, put it back,” Aunty Uju said, with the nasal, sliding accent she put on when she spoke to white Americans, in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans. Pooh-reet-back. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing.

Related Characters: Aunty Uju (speaker), Ifemelu
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point Ifemelu has just moved to America, while her Aunty Uju has been there for years, so Ifemelu is observing both this new culture and the way it has changed her aunt's identity. In Nigeria, Uju was a confident, outspoken woman who seemed to understand Ifemelu better than anyone else, but now it's clear that living in America has "subdued" Uju's identity in many ways. As this quote shows, Uju has learned to be apologetic about her foreignness, and she tries to speak with an American accent in front of white people so as to bring less attention to herself. Clearly many instances of racism or ignorance have led to Uju's creation of this new "persona," but Ifemelu is seeing it for the first time and is appalled.

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 14 Quotes

They mimicked what Americans told them: You speak such good English. How bad is AIDS in your country? It’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa. And they themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again. Here, Ifemelu felt a gentle, swaying sense of renewal. Here, she did not have to explain herself.

Related Characters: Ifemelu
Page Number: 170-171
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu has recently started college in America, and she feels isolated and disconnected from the rest of the students—until this scene, where she is invited to the "African Students Union" and she meets other students from Africa. Surrounded by people who experience the same kind of racism, ignorance, and homesickness that she does, Ifemelu feels a new sense of connection with these students, and she also feels reaffirmed in her identity as a Nigerian. She doesn't want to have to subdue herself and change her identity like her Aunty Uju has, but she also doesn't want to keep being hurt by racism and ignorance. In moments like these Ifemelu gets a renewal of strength and personal connection as she seeks to adjust to a new culture while also staying true to herself.

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 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.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Vincent’s Igbo had a rural accent. He put the National Insurance card on the table and was already writing his bank account number on a piece of paper. Iloba’s cell phone began to ring. That evening, as dusk fell, the sky muting to a pale violet, Obinze became Vincent.

Related Characters: Obinze Maduewesi, Iloba, Vincent Obi
Page Number: 310
Explanation and Analysis:

Obinze has been illegally living in England ever since his visa expired, and in order to find work he is forced to pay a Nigerian man with UK citizenship to use his identity card. Obinze's cousin Iloba finds a man named Vincent Obi, and Obinze promises Vincent a share of his salary in exchange for assuming his identity—essentially posing as a legal citizen. The crucial point here is the final line—"Obinze became Vincent"—as it shows just how much Obinze has compromised his identity in order to make a new life in England. Obinze is not just pretending to be Vincent; he is erasing his own identity, his own personhood, in order to assume an identity that the UK will accept. If he remains "Obinze," then to England he is nothing more than trash to be discarded.

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.

Chapter 40 Quotes

Her phone beeped with a text from Dike.

I can’t believe it. My president is black like me. She read the text a few times, her eyes filling with tears.

Related Characters: Dike (speaker), Ifemelu
Page Number: 447
Explanation and Analysis:

It's 2008, and Barack Obama has just been elected president of the United States. Ifemelu, who has been a fervent Obama supporter during his campaign, then receives this text from her cousin Dike, Aunty Uju's son. This is a poignant moment in the book, as it shows Dike, a young African American, feeling affirmed and empowered in his identity and blackness. With Obama's election, Dike has something direct and tangible that proves that blackness is not something negative, shameful, or inferior—a black man like himself has just become the most powerful man in the world. This doesn't mean that racism is "solved," of course, but it is a big step in affirming black identity and moving away from the inequality of the past.

Chapter 44 Quotes

“Americanah!” Ranyinudo teased her often. “You are looking at things with American eyes. But the problem is that you are not even a real Americanah. At least if you had an American accent we would tolerate your complaining!”

Related Characters: Ranyinudo (speaker), Ifemelu
Page Number: 475-476
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu has now returned to Nigeria after living in America for many years, and she is basically having an identity crisis—is she American, Nigerian, both, or neither? Her confusion seems encapsulated by the word "Americanah," which she and her Nigerian classmates had long ago used to mock Nigerians who go to America, come back, and pretend to be more sophisticated or Western. At the time the word was just a joke for Ifemelu, but now she really does feel unsure about her identity as either an American or a Nigerian. In America she was always an outsider, separate from the culture at large, and now that she's back in Nigeria she feels like a stranger or foreigner as well—even her tastes and instincts have changed to become more "American." And as her friend Ranyinudo points out, Ifemelu doesn't even fit the stereotype of the "Americanah" because she hasn't assumed an American accent. Ifemelu feels separated from both her cultures, and must learn to affirm her own unique identity.

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).

Chapter 55 Quotes

The pain of his absence did not decrease with time; it seemed instead to sink in deeper each day, to rouse in her even clearer memories. Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.

Related Characters: Ifemelu, Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 585-586
Explanation and Analysis:

After reconnecting and rekindling their old romance, Ifemelu has "broken up" with Obinze again because of his refusal to leave his wife, Kosi. This quote then sums up a crucial kind of growth that Ifemelu has experienced over the course of the book, and particularly since returning to Nigeria—a new maturity of both romantic love and self-love. Though they are divided again, Ifemelu still loves Obinze deeply and feels the "pain of his absence," and yet at the same time Ifemelu also feels peaceful and whole without Obinze. She has finally found an identity for herself as a writer, as a woman, and as a Nigerian/American citizen.