When Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie visited the Schomburg Library in Harlem for the first stop on her book tour for her latest novel, “Americanah,” it’s safe to say that Schomburg employees did not anticipate the crowd.
“I think we broke a Schomburg record. I mean, I think I saw 600 people,” said one Schomburg Library employee during the introduction, referring to how the 340 seats in the Langston Hughes auditorium were filled while dozens of others waited in the hall for a chance to get inside for what seemed like an increasingly personal discussion between old friends.
With the award-winning British author of “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith, Adichie opened up about several prominent themes in her latest novel, including womanhood and sexual empowerment, love, hair and, of course, race.
“When I came to the U.S., I started thinking about race in a way I had never thought about race in Nigeria,” said Adichie. “It’s very different to come to the U.S., and this is hair aside, and to realize that there is something else called Black, and not just that, but there’s so many assumptions made because this is something else that you are.”
“Americanah,” a word used in Nigeria when referring to migrants who have been Americanized or pretend to be, is the title of Adichie’s award-winning novel, which explores what it means to be Black in America from the perspective of a young Nigerian woman. Admirers in the audience related to the conversation, noting how a different perspective on America’s race relations is needed.
“She [touched] on this realness of how America is not the best place, and we have to stop pretending that it is,” said Alessandra Simeone, a 22-year-old who lives a few blocks away from the Schomburg Library.
“I think it’s refreshing only because it’s a perspective that I did not grow up with. It wasn’t like my parents were particularly patriotic, but we were comfortable in who we are as American, and so it’s nice to hear someone say something,” Simeone said. “It’s a critique, and it’s a necessary critique because we need to think about how our identity affects other people and how we can use and abuse our identity.”
Adichie disclosed how she observed the difficulty many foreign Blacks have with accepting the Black identity imposed upon them while in America. This difficulty is personified in the plight of her protagonist, Ifemelu, who struggles with her identity and tries to understand herself through a series of romantic relationships with a white man, an African-American man and an African man.
She suggested that many whites who have never loved a Black person have difficulties understanding race and the Black experience in America, observing that the few instances when she spoke to white people who really get race, it was often because they had “deeply loved a Black person.”
Lynn Edmonds, 25, a graduate student at NYU, said, “It’s definitely not the only solution, but I definitely understood what she was saying as a white person who has been in a relationship with a Black person for six years,” Edmonds said. “I felt like, to a level, I agree with what she was saying.”
The discussions of love and race were well received by the audience, but many young women could not help but to admire Adichie’s bold stances on womanhood and the importance of Black hair—two themes that they remembered most from the novel.
“Seeing strong women in books is very hard to find, so I just really enjoy [Smith’s and Adichie’s] books,” said Doris Pradieu, 32, who, being of Caribbean descent, identifies most with Smith.
Adichie noted how she bases the characteristics of the women in her novel on that of the women she surrounds herself with—who, more often than not, defy stereotypical, confining ideas of femininity. These women have apparently rubbed off on her, as young girls in the audience appeared to be in awe of “all things Chimamanda.”
“I love the hair comment. I’m going to college [studying finance], ready to graduate with a 4.0, [and] I was still told, ‘Make sure you always wear your hair straight,’” said Pradieu, confused with the logic and overwhelming concern with Black women’s hair.