Americanah

Americanah Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On Sundays, Curt and Ifemelu have brunch with Curt’s mother at an ornate hotel. The only other black person in the room is a waiter. Curt’s mother is aloof and chilly, and Curt says she “doesn’t like beautiful women.” One weekend Morgan visits Ifemelu and Curt (Ifemelu now regularly stays with Curt in Baltimore). Morgan seems happy as they walk along holding hands, and Ifemelu imagines herself married to Curt. They had joked about marriage before—he about going to Nigeria to pay her relatives the “bride price,” she about his relatives being horrified that “the help” was wearing the bride’s dress.
With Curt, Ifemelu is allowed into the inner circle of privilege. Theoretically she is no longer an outsider, as she now lives the same kind of life that Curt does, but she recognizes that she always will be an outsider just because she is black. No matter how rich or socially elite she might become, she recognizes that other rich white people will always mistake her for being “the help.”
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One day Ifemelu and Curt sit on the couch, she reading and he watching sports. Ifemelu feels content and at ease: she is now used to a life of satisfaction and comfort. Curt takes her on trips to different countries and buys her clothes and textbooks. She keeps babysitting and sends more money home to her parents. Her father finally finds a new job and seems more like his old self.
Ifemelu has now made it, and is living the kind of life most immigrants dream of. She has entered the inner circle of wealthy white Americans, is making enough money to send some home, and leads a comfortable, happy life. But her restless self always catches up with her.
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Ifemelu feels strange talking to her parents on the phone, as she cannot remember some of the things they describe. She doesn’t tell them about Curt. Ifemelu’s father discusses the new president, Obasanjo, and asks about her future job prospects, but she only answers vaguely. Ifemelu has been to the career services office, but doesn’t have any definite dream job or passion, and when recruiters learn that she isn’t a citizen, they are always afraid to “descend into the dark tunnel of immigration paperwork.”
Ifemelu’s sudden success at being American makes her feel more disconnected from her life back home: her parents, her old home, and Nigeria itself. We get another glimpse of the difficult world Ifemelu just left, however, at the career services office. It is possible for non-citizens to find a good job, but the convoluted American immigration system makes it a huge ordeal.
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Curt says he can help, and he makes a few calls and gets Ifemelu a job interview at a public relations office, which will help her get a work visa and a green card. She is pleased and grateful, but recognizes how different it is for her now because of Curt—her friend Wambui, for example, is working three jobs to raise money to pay for a green-card marriage. Ifemelu can’t help feeling a slight resentment that Curt can so easily “rearrange the world” to work out for him.
Ifemelu moves even further along the ideal path most immigrants hope for. She is grateful to Curt, but can’t help comparing herself to her friends without a “Curt,” like Wambui. This is an explicit example of the kinds of privileges white Americans have but might never recognize unless they are pointed out.
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A friend 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 goes to a professional hairdresser. The second relaxer burns her scalp some, but the hairdresser compliments her newly straight hair as having the “white-girl swing.” Ifemelu leaves the salon and feels sad, as if a part of herself has been killed by the straightening chemicals.
This is when her hair starts to become symbolic and important to Ifemelu. She has always had it braided and never felt any shame, but now she is supposed to consider braids “unprofessional” and to straighten her hair like a white woman’s. The actual smell of burning brings home the point of independence and confidence being destroyed.
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Curt is upset by Ifemelu’s burned scalp, and comments on how wrong it is that she has to do this. Ifemelu’s job interview goes well, and she wonders 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 citizen in a few years now that she is going to get a green card, but she doesn’t tell them how she got the job interview.
Curt often recognizes his own privilege, or at least society’s constant prejudice against black people. Ifemelu acts as Adichie shows many immigrants acting—she lies to her family about the less-romantic details and tells them only about her successes. Ifemelu starts to recognize her own hair as a symbol now.
Themes
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The chapter ends with a post from Ifemelu’s blog about what different races in America aspire to. She tells a story of “Professor Hunk” meeting a European Jewish professor, and them arguing about the “oppression olympics.” Ifemelu argues that there is an oppression olympics, and that every American minority gets “different kinds of shit, but shit still.” But American black is still always at the bottom.
Ifemelu’s experience in America informs her blog, and by the time she is writing it she has lots of knowledge of the shifting racial hierarchies in America. Other minorities like Asians, Hispanics, gays, and Jews all face different kinds and degrees of discrimination in America, along with blacks.
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Ifemelu tells a story about her aunt firing a Hispanic cleaning lady who was arrogant and cleaned badly. Her aunt complained that the woman “thought she was white.” Thus every race aspires to whiteness, or at least the privileges that whiteness brings. Ifemelu asks, rhetorically, what WASPs must aspire to then.
This story is clearly about Aunty Uju, who has now lived in America long enough to have absorbed its sense of racial hierarchy. Thus she sees a sense of entitlement or arrogance as being a “white” quality.
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