If we are to consider reading as a form of traveling then I have to think about the amount of times I can remember traveling while Black; reading books about the Black experience written by Black people.
When my husband and I travel anywhere, we always seek out any other Black people who appear and immediately make contact with them. Because, unless you’re only traveling to places where the native population is Black or of color, you’re usually surrounded predominantly by other traveling White identified people. The same often goes for literature.
I can remember the first work of adult fiction I read was Terry McMillan’s “Disappearing Acts.” I was in high school and felt so proud and smart and sassy carrying that book around and discussing it with all my friends who were reading it too. Never mind the fact that I didn’t relate to many of the character’s experiences. I didn’t care! This was the story of a modern day Black woman written by a Black woman who at the time was breaking ground for new up and coming Black female writers. I had learned so much about the lives of White American girls in Judy Blume novels, Ellen Conford, Francine Pascal, Paula Danziger and more. Notice how long that list of authors was? I could name many more. But with the exception of discovering Janetta Johns that fateful day in the Brooklyn Library R.I.F. club, I didn’t get a chance to travel in the mind and heart of a Black person again until Terry McMillan in the 90s.
Near the beginning of my senior year I discovered a love for the Harlem Renaissance writers. We read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in on of my high school classes and I was just blown away by it. It was the first book I had ever read that was written completely in dialect. I became obsessed with James Baldwin who let me travel while Black, gay and female! He is fucking beyond. I think it was around this time that I became a more selective reader. I started to discover my favorite authors and understand different writing styles. I wouldn’t walk into a bookstore just looking for whatever caught my eye anymore. I went looking for Baldwin and Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison or collected essays of Black writers like Erotica Noir. I was now traveling while Black, Caribbean and sexy! LOL!
But as in all forms of popular media, there is always a lull in the popularity and mainstream promotion of Black writers and if you’re not vigilant, you won’t always go beyond the best selling table at Barnes & Noble which I can assure you without having stepped foot in one myself for over a week, will be filled with books by predominantly White authors.
Until recently, I myself had not read a book by a Black writer who was not dead since “Unburnable” which Life As I Know It recommended to me over a year ago. I was reading several non-fiction books and waiting like thousands of other eager fans for the next Murakami novel because to travel in a Murakami novel is to go places you cannot prepare yourself for. He is one of the most fearless and dedicated writers I have ever read. Who knows how long I would have floated about lazily in the comfort zone of my favorite authors if Life as I Know it had not also recommended “Americanah” to me? I don’t think I’ve ever traveled while Black like this before.
Ifemelu (A name I love by the way. I sometimes just say it out loud to myself ‘cause I’m American and different names fascinate me) is a woman, describing with Nigerian eyes the experience of being a Black Nigerian in America. Her observations of cultural distinctions, segregation, affectation and assimilation that occur for immigrants in America are personal, global and multi-layered. Nothing about it is purely black and white. She describes with accuracy, sensitivity and intelligence, places and customs and ways of speaking, as well as the subtle transition from national identity to racial identity that comes to define what it means to be Black or of color in America.
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
The culture shock that occurs for Ifemelu in America with it’s systems of racialization, bad grammar defined as “English” and a litany of condescension and presumption from Whites, Blacks and Africans alike is reductive, traumatic, homogenizing and inevitable. Some of her experiences read very familiarly to me because of stories my mother has always told me about coming to America for the first time from Trinidad. There are even experiences she relays that I can understand as someone who has never truly felt I belonged completely and solely to that strange and ever shifting definition of “Black American” in any but the most apparent of ways.
In a Cultural Diversity class I took years ago I learned about transnational migration and the term ethnic enclaves. It was the first time I fully understood that for immigrants coming to America or travelling back and forth from their homeland to America, these spaces (most familiar to me in the boroughs of New York City) were meant to insulate them from the often unwanted shock of watching their family be stripped completely of culture and nationality in order to become this thing called American. On the other hand some immigrants strive to emerge themselves fully and to leave all their cultural affectations their accent, customs, an entire mindset and mannerism behind in order to get the best access to work and the possibility to create wealth and security for their children and children’s children. Those immigrants who can pass as “White” often benefit greatly from these opportunities. Unfortunately this doesn’t work out so well for immigrants with dark skin because what they inherit when they come to America is a racial classification that informs nothing but racist systems of oppression.
So far the most successful depiction of the shift in identity from nationality to Black Americanism is in Ifemelu’s description of her beloved nephew, Dike who is uprooted from Nigeria as a baby and raised by his mother, Ife’s Aunt, in America. His only link to his national identity is his mother who among other things reinforces negative associations of Nigerian ways to him by only speaking the native language to him when she is very upset. This is something I believe Adichie mentions deliberately because she is aware of the long terms effects on the children of immigrants when they negatively and or exclusively associate native language with anger and shame.
This is how a non-American person can come to believe without being able to trace the origins of this belief that their own native culture is a thing to be dismissed and erased, to be replaced with one which will never regard them as anything other than marginalized and inferior transplants.
As I read “Americanah” and silently chant and root for ifemelu not to lose her culture completely, it occurs to me that she is perhaps gaining another kind of self along the way, and that because of her determination to be authentic and honest in her reflection, she is becoming something far greater than what can be categorized by either race or nationality and yet could not exist without these identities. Because nothing is perfect for her and her family in modern day Nigeria either. And she is honest and candid about conditions there as well. But to find any kind of home, you must first know from where it is you are coming.This is why Black Americans often suffer from the most unbearable, exhaustive and psychologically dysfunctional sense of displacement. This is also why it cannot be overstated that literacy, where America ranks as 15th in the world, is a massively indispensable tool both of evolution and revolution.