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.
Identity Quotes in Americanah
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.”
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.