Half of a Yellow Sun

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Race and Culture Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon
Loyalty and Betrayal Theme Icon
War and Violence Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Half of a Yellow Sun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race and Culture Theme Icon

Much of the conflict in Nigerian politics and between the characters of the novel has to do with race and culture. The root cause of this is the racist, oppressive colonization of Nigeria by the British Empire. This is illustrated in characters like Susan, who sees all Africans as less-civilized and inferior to white people. Colonialism also exacerbated cultural conflicts among the Nigerians themselves, as the country’s borders are a “unified” region created by England, forcing together over 300 different cultural groups. The main tension is between the Muslim, autocratic Hausa and the mostly-Christian, republican Igbo. The British colonizers gave most of the government control to the Hausa, as they were easier for the British to influence from afar, but the Igbo and the Yoruba developed the strongest middle class.

Adichie’s characters then represent many of these different cultures and races. Olanna and Kainene are upper-class Igbo, Odenigbo is a middle-class, intellectual Igbo, Ugwu is an extremely poor Igbo from a bush village, and Richard is a white English expatriate. Adichie is from an Igbo family herself, so she clearly identifies more with the Biafran cause, but she doesn’t shy away from portraying the mistakes and atrocities committed by Biafra. Overall her portrayal of the conflicts between race and culture shows the common humanity of all, and how even someone like Richard – a member of the oppressive culture – can be a force for good when he is willing to recognize the equal value of all people and try to help them.

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Race and Culture Quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun

Below you will find the important quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun related to the theme of Race and Culture.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

“There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass. You must read books and learn both answers. I will give you books, excellent books.” Master stopped to sip his tea. “They will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park’s grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park.”

Related Characters: Odenigbo (speaker), Ugwu
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old boy from the village Opi, has been brought to Odenigbo's house to serve as his houseboy. In exchange, he is provided with room, board, and an education at the campus primary school.

In this quote, Odenigbo expresses his discontent with the colonial history that he knows Ugwu will be taught in school. He advises Ugwu as to what he must write to do well in school, but also wants to make sure that he passes on the true history of Nigeria, not the history that British colonialism has written into the textbooks. This quote epitomizes Odenigbo's frustration with postcolonial Nigeria: the true answers for an independent nation are very clear, but obscured by the shadow that remains of the imperial British empire. In order to succeed and maintain social mobility, one must pander to colonial enterprises; but to preserve any sort of native identity, one must also defy them.


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“Of course, of course, but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,” Master said. “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

Related Characters: Odenigbo (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

In the evenings, Odenigbo's house becomes a salon for many of the faculty members at the University. Ugwu enjoys listening to the academics debate literature, science, and primarily, politics. In this quote, Master (Odenigbo) argues vehemently against the broad "Nigerian" identity that white British colonists imposed upon a diverse array of tribes that resided for centuries in one particular region of Africa. 

Odenigo identifies as tribalist (meaning he sees himself as "Igbo" rather than "Nigerian"), and works towards overthrowing the various sociopolitical structures that the British put into place. He points out that Nigerians see themselves as black only because the white British colonists told them they were, and that they live in a place called "Nigeria" because white settlers decided that a particular region was to be grouped under one nation. Odenigbo is vehemently against these ideas because they are artificial, foreign creations that diminish the importance and identity of all individual Africans, and also the Igbo tribe, which he and his ancestors have been a part of for as long as they can remember. This identity is not as fully recognized politically because it did not serve the needs of the British colonists (and indeed, most colonial powers tried to exacerbate conflicts between tribes or groups in order to maintain their power over a divided populace). In his quest to overthrow colonialism in the artificial Nigeria, Odenigbo first identifies as a member of his tribe, the Igbo, before seeing himself as black and Nigerian. 

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“The new Nigerian upper class is a collection of illiterates who read nothing and eat food they dislike at overpriced Lebanese restaurants and have social conversations around one subject: ‘How’s the new car behaving?’”

Related Characters: Kainene Ozobia (speaker)
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

After meeting at one of Susan's parties, Richard becomes infatuated with Kainene. They begin to meet for lunches at one of her father's hotels, which soon lead to somewhat unsuccessful trysts, due to Richard's inexplicable inability to sexually perform. Kainene, however, does not seem upset by his lack of arousal, and they resume their conversations as normal. 

In this quote, Kainene complains about her parents and the social class they occupy. She argues that they are undereducated yet wealthy, resulting in a banality that centers around their "nouveau-riche" purchases like foreign cars and expensive meals. Richard is fascinated with her biting wit and prescient observations, and her strong sense of self despite having grown up in the very social class she is deprecating. Though critical of the nouveau riche (people with "new money," often seen to be tasteless and garish) like her parents, Kainene exhibits some hypocrisy in that she very much benefits from the wealth and education she has received as a result of her family's sociopolitical status. Still, Richard is in awe of her determination to make her own way in the world as a shrewd businesswoman. 

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

Ugwu suddenly wished that Master would not touch his mother because her clothes smelled of age and must, and because Master did not know that her back ached and her cocoyam patch always yielded a poor harvest and her chest was indeed on fire when she coughed. What did Master know about anything anyway, since all he did was shout with his friends and drink brandy at night?

Related Characters: Ugwu (speaker), Odenigbo, Ugwu’s Mother
Page Number: 113-114
Explanation and Analysis:

Ugwu's aunt comes to Odenigbo's house to tell him that Ugwu's mother is very sick, and that he must go to see her immediately before she dies. Odenigbo tells Ugwu and his aunt to get in his car, and that he will bring Ugwu's mother from her village so that she can be treated by a doctor.

In this quote, Odenigbo insists on carrying Ugwu's mother to his car, and Ugwu suddenly feels both embarrassed and angry. Though he previously idolized Odenigbo for all of his worldly knowledge, he suddenly comes to realize Odenigbo's shortcomings: as an educated academic, Odenigbo assumes that he must know how most village Nigerians live. Ugwo feels that Odenigbo's kindness in ensuring that his mother receives modern medical help is a kind of pity, and not entirely altruistic. Ugwu does not know that Odenigbo himself comes from a village similar to Opi. This lack of transparency between Odenigbo about his past and Ugwu about his present reinforces the problems with class in postcolonial Nigeria, where social mobility is available to some and not others, and there is a severe disparity in the ways in which the poor and the rich live. Even though Ugwu and Odenigbo eventually become as good as family, they will always remain a Master and his servant. 

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

It was the look in Okeoma’s eyes that worried him the most: a disdainful distrust that made him think of reading somewhere that the African and the European would always be irreconcilable. It was wrong of Okeoma to assume that he was one of those Englishman who did not give the African the benefit of an equal intelligence.

Related Characters: Richard Churchill, Okeoma
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard moves to Nsukka for a university fellowship and soon becomes a part of Odenigbo's regular salons. At one such event, he tells Okeoma about the Igbo-Ukwu roped pots and art that inspired him to move to Nigeria to write. Okeoma accuses Richard of expressing surprise that "these people" could accomplish such artwork. In this quote, Richard is deeply offended that Okeoma would think his interest is condescending or racist in any way. 

By moving to Nigeria due to a genuine interest in Igbo-Ukwu artwork, and particularly after falling in love with an Igbo woman, Richard essentially believes that he is exempt from his native nation's colonial past. Thus, he is shocked when Okeoma accuses him of holding racist ideals that place African people on a lower level of intelligence, as colonial propaganda attempted to make people believe. Richard believes he is exempt from colonialism because he is a "good" white person who does not look down upon Nigerians, yet as Okeoma's criticism points out, it is this kind of thinking that precisely problematizes his interest in the country. Richard is not exempt from the privilege that comes from white skin and a British passport, and as he will come to learn, the story of Nigeria's struggle for independence will never truly be his to tell. 

Part 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

Odenigbo climbed up to the podium waving his Biafran flag: swaths of red, black, and green and, at the center, a luminous half of a yellow sun.
“Biafra is born! We will lead Black Africa! We will live in security! Nobody will ever again attack us! Never again!”

Related Characters: Odenigbo (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Biafran Flag
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

The same day that Odenigbo asks Olanna to sign a petition demanding that East Nigeria secede from the rest of the country, Ojukwu announces over the radio that the secession has occurred, with the new nation christened "Biafra." A joyous rally of students and lecturers congregates in Freedom Square, where Odenigbo is urged to speak. In this quote, Odenigbo proudly waves the Biafran flag, depicting the colors red, black, and green, and a rising sun, expressing his joy at independence at last. 

As a "revolutionary," as Kainene is fond of calling Odenigbo, Odenigbo has grand dreams of freeing Africa from the colonial clutches of Europeans. Even though Nigeria is technically independent of Britain, the artificial structures left behind by occupation still very much govern the diverse array of tribes grouped under one Nigeria. As a nation born post-colonialism, Biafra has the chance to actively shed these structures and govern itself presciently against foreign influence. Odenigbo is ecstatic to be a part of a cause beyond the debates in his living room, and exhibits a passion at the podium that he seldom releases in his personal life.

To Odenigbo, Biafra is a chance at rebirth for both him and his Igbo people. Yet, neither he nor the joyous members of the audience know that a terrible civil war (largely inspired and supported by foreign powers) is about to ravage the nation. The half of a yellow sun on the flag becomes an important symbol throughout the novel: a rising sun on the horizon, half of a nation that will soon become whole. Yet the lack of a full sun may also come to represent pessimism, a half that remains a half and never comes to fruition. At the end of the war, it is up to each person to decide for his or herself whether the glass is "half empty" or "half full" in the seemingly futile fight for independence. 

Part 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

The notion of the recent killings being the product of “age-old” hatred is therefore misleading. The tribes of the North and the South have long had contact, at least as far back as the ninth century, as some of the magnificent beads discovered at the historic Igbo-Ukwu site attest. No doubt these groups also fought wars and slave-raided each other, but they did not massacre in this manner. If this is hatred, then it is very young. It has been caused, simply, by the informal divide-and-rule policies of the British colonial exercise.

Related Characters: Richard Churchill (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

As the war rages on, Richard's Aunt Elizabeth sends him foreign news articles that report on the situation. These reports are often incorrect and full of prejudices against Nigerians and Biafrans. Angered, Richard writes an article to send to a British newspaper, correcting their assumptions that they purport to be facts. In this quote, Richard's article refutes the idea that Africans are inherently violent or warlike, but rather that British colonial policy created artificial divisions that have ultimately led to this inhumane conflict. 

This quote by Richard condenses much of the novel's political argument: though the rest of the world pins the root of the war on the African people's inherent inhumanity and violent tendencies, the true cause of the violence is the British colonist's artificial political structures that placed one tribal group in place to govern a variety of other tribes that happen to reside in close proximity to one another. As Richard (who is unable to resist including his love of Igbo-Ukwu art and artifacts in his article) points out, Northern and Southern tribes had peaceful interactions eons before the British even traveled to the continent. It is only when the British decided that the Northern tribes were more Europeanlooking and therefore worthy of governing the Southern tribes that conflict arose. Though it takes him some time to realize the full extent of the privilege that he receives from this very system, Richard acknowledges that as a white man he benefits from the very system that has caused the war, and seeks to use this position to implicate Britain, and the rest of the world that turns a racist or blind eye to Biafra, in this tragedy.

Part 3, Chapter 19 Quotes

Ugwu moved closer to the door to listen; he was fascinated by Rhodesia, by what was happening in the south of Africa. He could not comprehend people that looked like Mr. Richard taking away the things that belonged to people that looked like him, Ugwu, for no reason at all.

Related Characters: Ugwu (speaker), Richard Churchill
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Ugwu eavesdrops on Richard and Odenigbo in the living room in Nsukka, where Odenigbo is criticizing the British Empire for the atrocities that they commit in Rhodesia (South Africa). In this quote, Ugwu thinks to himself that it makes no sense that white people feel that they can simply take things away from black people. 

Ugwu's heartbreaking confusion at the racist roots of colonialism, that white people are superior to black people, underscores the nonsensical logic of racism and colonialism itself. Oppression and exploitation have occurred throughout human history, but nothing as systematic and large-scale as the European conquest of the African continent (not to mention Asia and the Americas). To Ugwu, the theft of property and freedom only comes as a punishment if people commit a crime; therefore, he is fascinated by the idea that one can rule over another simply due to differences in the color of their skin. His logic, of course, is absolutely correct: there is no reason that this should ever occur, except for the fact that centuries of racism and colonialism have put structures in place that allow for the systematic exploitation of black Africans by white Europeans. Ugwu's passing confusion underscores why Biafra's cause is so important, even in its failure: that Biafrans sought to create their own nation, free of colonial influence, exerting the innate human independence they deserved and were stripped of by the British. 

Part 4, Chapter 27 Quotes

“Of course I asked because you are white. They will take what you write more seriously because you are white. Look, the truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause. Your government will evacuate you in a minute if you ask them to. So it is not enough to carry limp branches and shout power, power to show that you support Biafra. If you really want to contribute, this is the way that you can. The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they simply cannot remain silent while we die.”

Related Characters: Madu Madu (speaker), Richard Churchill
Page Number: 382
Explanation and Analysis:

As Biafra is on the brink of losing one of its major holdings, Port Harcourt (where Kainene and Richard now live together after Richard fled Nsukka), Madu asks Richard to write articles for the Propaganda Directorate. As Richard has always worried that Madu did not like him and was in fact in love with Kainene, he is flattered by this, but also concerned that he is only being asked because he is white. 

Though Richard has subconsciously felt that the Biafran cause is his cause, too, since he has been present since its inception, Madu points out that it never has, and never will be, his struggle. As a white Englishman, he still has privileges in a postcolonial Africa and larger world that neither Biafrans nor Nigerians yet have. If he truly believes in the cause, Madu asserts, then the best thing he can do is use his privilege to bring the world's attention to the atrocities being committed in the war. 

For Richard, who has found a home in Biafra in a way he never felt at home in England (or Nigeria), Madu's words, like Okeoma's previous accusations at his internalized racism, shake him to the core. However, over time, he does come to accept that Biafra will never be his the way it is for those who are of Igbo descent. He harnesses his white privilege according to Madu's suggestions, and writes articles with the goal of bringing Biafra's struggle to the forefront of worldwide media coverage. 

Part 4, Chapter 33 Quotes

Richard showed them Kainene’s picture. Sometimes, in his rush, he pulled out the picture of the roped pot instead. Nobody had seen her… On the drive back, Richard began to cry.

Related Characters: Richard Churchill (speaker), Kainene Ozobia
Related Symbols: Roped Pots
Page Number: 510
Explanation and Analysis:

After Kainene has been missing for two days, Olanna and Richard drive around in search of her. In this quote, Richard asks passersby if they have seen her, using a picture he keeps in his wallet to jog their memories. Occasionally, he accidentally pulls out the photo he keeps of the roped pot that inspired his move to Nigeria. No one has any information for Olanna or Richard, and when they drive home, Richard cries in despair.

While there have been many false alarms for the loss of the four narrative characters--Olanna and Odenigbo's impending break-up, Olanna's visit to Kano during a massacre, Ugwu's near-death experience--it is in fact Kainene whose disappearance remains a mystery in the final pages of the novel. She is the one main character whose voice we never hear as a narrator: like Richard's roped pots, she is objectified, othered, and analyzed by each of the other characters, in particular Olanna and Richard. The fact that Richard keeps the picture of the roped pots alongside his photo of Kainene symbolizes the fact that though he indeed loves Kainene and is lost in her absence, he has never quite shed his fascination for Nigeria due to his "othering" of its culture, a remnant of his native Englishness and white skin. 

Part 4, Chapter 34 Quotes

Ugwu was writing as she spoke, and his writing, the earnestness of his interest, suddenly made her story important, made it serve a larger purpose that even she was not sure of, and so she told him all she remembered about the train full of people who had cried and shouted and urinated on themselves.

Related Characters: Olanna Ozobia (speaker), Ugwu
Page Number: 512
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, while gently brushing Baby's hair, which is falling out from malnutrition, Olanna tells Ugwu that she cannot stop thinking of the little girl's head that she saw in the calabash on the way back from Kano. Ugwu asks her to say more, and writes down everything Olanna tells him. 

Like Ugwu's decreased nightmares after he began writing, Olanna begins to feel a sense of relief as she tells Ugwu all she saw that day in Kano and on the train back to Nsukka. The reader begins to suspect that perhaps the writer of "The World Was Silent When We Died" is not Richard, but in fact Ugwu. Ugwu's determination to record the atrocities Olanna has experienced, and the sense of release and understanding she feels, underscores the importance of recording these events for posterity, and of ensuring that events like these never happen again. It also emphasizes the tragedy of the neglect that Biafra felt from the world at large throughout the war--like Olanna's wish to be heard, Biafra wants to be heard and helped as people starve to death behind enemy lines, cut off from all food supplies. Here, Adichie shows the importance of narratives and memoir to give humanity to even the most gruesome of genocides. 

Part 4, Chapter 36 Quotes

Madu got up. Richard reached out and grasped his arm. Come back, he wanted to say, come back here and tell me if you ever laid your filthy black hand on her. Madu shrugged Richard’s hand off…
Darkness descended on him, and when it lifted he knew that he would never see Kainene again and that his life would always be like a candlelit room; he would see things only in shadows, only in half glimpses.

Related Characters: Richard Churchill (speaker), Kainene Ozobia , Madu Madu
Page Number: 537
Explanation and Analysis:

After Kainene's disappearance, Richard goes to Lagos to see Kainene's parents. At their home, he also encounters Madu. After years of pent-up anger and jealousy towards Madu, Richard summons up the courage to ask him if he loves Kainene, to which Madu replies that he does. Richard asks him if he has ever "touched" (slept) with Kainene, and Madu only laughs. Richard feels condescended to by Madu, and in this quote, he thinks a variety of furious, even racist thoughts towards the man he believes may have slept with the woman he loves. Instead of saying these things, he punches Madu, who punches Richard in return and causes him to fall unconscious.

Though Richard has found a home in Nigeria, and then Biafra, in a way that he never felt at home in England, this inner monologue reveals that he still feels an "otherness" for the Nigerian people. So great is his love for Kainene--at times, a kind of fetishization of the way she looks and acts, so different from what he looks like and his own personality--that he thinks the very worst thoughts he can towards Madu, which in his trauma easily descend into racism. Though perhaps subconsciously still ingrained with racist ideas, Richard would never deign to say these things out loud, and instead he expresses his grief through a punch, which the powerful, confident Madu responds to with an even stronger punch. As Richard slips in and out of unconsciousness, he thinks about how his world will be entirely different now without Kainene by his side, a symbol of how both she and Biafra have forever shaped who he is, despite his worries towards the contrary. He had defined his life around Kainene and Biafra, and now both are lost.