Ifemelu moves to Baltimore. She arrives at the train station and has an Ethiopian taxi driver. He says that she doesn’t look African at all, because her blouse is too tight, and he warns her to not let America “corrupt her.” She then angrily goes into a bathroom to make sure that her blouse isn’t actually too tight. Ifemelu would later write a blog post about this.
This is another example of an African immigrant seeing America as a sinful and corrupting force upon the Africans who move there. Ifemelu doesn’t share this sentiment, but it is all too familiar to her.
Curt likes to tell this story to his friends, who are all like him: white, happy, and wealthy. One day Ifemelu hears Curt use the word “blowhard” in talking to a friend, and the extreme Americanness of the word reminds her that on some level Curt and his friends will “never be fully knowable to her.”
Ifemelu has joined Curt’s inner circle, but something as simple as a word can remind her that there will always be a divide between her and them. The story of the cab driver is a funny anecdote to them, not something personally frustrating.
Ifemelu gets her own apartment, but she mostly stays with Curt. They often go on spontaneous trips to other countries, and as she spends more time with him Ifemelu sees just how much he needs to be always doing something. He also seems to need her constant reassurance, both that she enjoys all the traveling and that she enjoys him in bed.
Because of his privilege and natural optimism, Curt feels like the world will be good to him, but he still has a constant insecurity about his own worthiness, and so he asks Ifemelu for reassurance.
Ifemelu’s hair starts to fall out. Wambui tells her it’s the relaxing chemicals that are making at happen, and she tells Ifemelu to cut her hair and “go natural.” She says that “relaxing your hair is like being in prison,” as you are always doing battle with your hair and trying to make it do what it isn’t meant to do. Ifemelu is convinced, and lets Wambui cut off her hair then and there. Ifemelu then looks in the mirror and thinks she looks horrible.
The oppressive outside force of the relaxing chemicals actually start killing off Ifemelu’s hair, so she is forced to cut it all off and start over. She has Wambui, a strong, independent African friend, to help her with this decision, or she might never have done it. Immediately afterward Ifemelu feels insecure and ugly.
Curt says she looks good, but Ifemelu is so ashamed that she wears a hat to go out and calls in sick for work the next day. Wambui suggests that she go to “HappilyKinkyNappy.com” to be inspired. Ifemelu decides she’ll do it right away, and she goes to use Curt’s open laptop. He immediately looks frightened and tells her that “the e-mails mean nothing.”
Ifemelu is insecure about herself now that she looks so drastically different—she discovers that much of her natural confidence was based on her looks. Even the devoted Curt has something to hide.
Ifemelu is shocked, as somehow she had never considered that Curt might cheat on her. She reads the e-mails, which are from a blond woman that Curt says he met in Delaware. Nothing ever happened between them, but he didn’t discourage her suggestive flirting. Ifemelu is angry, and especially angry when she looks up the woman and sees her confident, flowing hair. She knows she is being unreasonable, but she gets her things and leaves. Curt apologizes, but makes it seem like it is the woman’s fault, not his own.
Ifemelu has always felt confident with Curt, even though she knows that she can never truly be a part of his privileged world, and so she is especially hurt to learn of this unfaithfulness and disconnection between them. She is also feeling especially insecure about herself at this point, and so can’t help comparing her hair to the other woman’s and feeling inferior.
Curt comes by later with lots of flowers, and they take a walk, Ifemelu’s hair covered in a headwrap. After that Ifemelu calls in sick for three more days, and then finally goes to work. One of her coworkers asks if her haircut means “something political.” The only other black woman in the company asks if she cut it because she’s a lesbian. Years later, when Ifemelu resigned, the woman would ask if she thought her hair was part of the problem.
Ifemelu takes three days to reconcile herself to going out in public with her new hair. Her coworkers’ reactions almost justify her insecurity, however, as her new hairstyle is seen as something more than just a hairstyle—reinforcing the idea of black female hair as a political symbol.
Ifemelu peruses HappilyKinkyNappy.com and finds a whole online community of black women embracing their natural hair. Ifemelu starts ordering homemade products for her hair and feels better about herself. One day she is at a farmers’ market, holding hands with Curt, and a black man asks her, “You ever wonder why he likes you looking all jungle like that?” Curt doesn’t hear him, but Ifemelu is upset. Later she goes back on the website and receives more affirmation—it is an almost religious community of women supporting each other. Ifemelu looks in the mirror and realizes that she has fallen in love with her real hair.
This incident shows how deeply ingrained racist aesthetic ideas about beauty are in America. Even a black man automatically sees black women’s natural hair as less beautiful—and even less civilized. Ifemelu finds an online community and discovers the power of this kind of support and discussion. Ifemelu “falling in love” with her hair is an important moment of self-love, confidence, and independence.
There is another post from Ifemelu’s blog, this one about why dark-skinned black women love Barack Obama. Ifemelu says that black people everywhere are always eager to have mixed ancestry or to seem lighter than they are. In modern America, most successful blacks are light-skinned or else marry light-skinned or white people. Barack Obama is different because he broke the mold by marrying a dark black woman. Ifemelu says that dark black women are invisible in American culture (except as a mammy or sassy friend), but they are hopeful that this will change because of Michelle Obama.
The online community and sense of connection Ifemelu found at HappilyKinkyNappy eventually leads to her own blog. Loving herself and her natural hair and dark skin is an important part of Ifemelu’s self-confidence, but in her blog she explains how it is also a political issue. Black women, especially dark-skinned black women, are made to feel inferior according to America’s beauty standards, so for them self-love is also a radical act against racism.