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.
Race and Culture ThemeTracker
Race and Culture Quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun
“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.”
“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.”
“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?’”
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?
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.
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!”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.