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Hannah Dickens

HON 394
O'Flaherty
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a love story about
Ifemelu and Obinze that is used as a connecting point to discuss much
bigger themes and problems. Adichie uses the symbol of hair as an
access point that weaves together the story and experiences and
struggles that characters face in the bigger themes of race, identity
and culture and the assumptions that can come with them.
The theme and symbolism of hair along with the assumptions
that can come with it is introduced almost immediately within the book
and continues throughout the book. The book starts with Ifemelu
needing to travel to Trenton to get to a hair-braiding salon because
there are no such salons in Princeton because "the few black locals she
had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not image
them wearing braids" but she could still not see why she had to travel
about 12 miles to get her hair done (Adichie, 3-4). This need for travel
also speaks to how few African-Americans or American-Africans were
around the area and how white it probably was and therefore the
culture and pressure that Ifemelu was surrounded by. Hair and
appearance is one of the first and easiest things to judge by and then
make assumptions from. When Ifemelu cut off her damaged hair to

start fresh with her natural hair, her co-workers, including another
black woman, questioned and assumed what statements she was
trying to make with the change, even though it was not a first
acquaintance and they knew her previously. "'Does it mean anything?
Like, something political?''Why did you cut your hair, hon? Are you a
lesbian?" (Adichie, 262). Ifemelu's co-workers saw the change as only
being explainable by her trying to make a statement beyond her trying
to reclaim her identity. But assumptions are not made solely by one
race or one culture as Ifemelu makes big assumptions about a white
man based on his comb over above his bald spot that she assumed
meant that he had to be an academic in the STEM science of chemistry
(Adichie, 4). Hair and outward appearance is used by and connected to
everyone regardless of race or gender or other classifications to make
assumptions or statements or decisions, which makes it an ideal
symbol within Americanah.
Hair is also tied to personal identity and the ideals set by
American culture that others must then torture themselves to try and
fit. Both Ifemelu and Aunty Uju are told to go through the process of
relaxing their hair because having natural hair in any form like braids is
unprofessional and they would not get hired. After Kemi told Aunty Uju
to relax her hair for her interviews, Uju tells Ifemelu that "You are in a
country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to
succeed." (Adichie, 146) And when Ifemelu is going to go in for an

interview, Ruth tells her "My only advice? Lose the braids and
straighten your hair. Nobody says this kind of stuff but it matters."
(Adichie, 250) Though straight hair was not natural for either Ifemelu
or Uju, they were basically forced into attempting to meet the
extremely narrow and prejudiced idea of professional and the ideal.
Ifemelu straightens her hair but loses a bit of herself and her identity in
doing so. "The verve was gone. She did not recognize herself. She left
the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the
ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should
not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss." (Adichie, 251). And
beyond the loss of self is the lengths and struggles that Ifemelu and
others go through to fit that ideal of beauty to the point of Ifemelu
laughing off her scalp scabbing and oozing pus after going through
treatment. Ifemelu also has a scar behind her ear from when Aunty Uju
was straightening her hair in secondary school with a hot comb,
showing that the style and ideal had been in place in her life long
before she actually moved to America (Adichie, 251-252). The
American "ideal" was created with a very narrow focus and
acceptability and their power and viewpoints was exported beyond the
geographical borders of the country to affect many others and, in the
case of Ifemelu, force an idea that was not realistic and rather
unnatural for others to obtain and neglect their own identities and
cultures to do so.

The symbol of the hair is also used to represent the experiences


of different women and their struggles and journeys in the book. When
Aunty Uju was under the care of the General, she had her hair done in
the salon with "the silky hair extensions that fell to her shoulders:
Chinese weave-on, the latest version, shiny and straight as straight
could be; it never tangled." (Adichie, 93) Her life was not complicated
and she did not really struggle and her hair was an example of that.
But when she goes to America, her hair changes to "scruffy braids" and
Ifemelu comments on how "America had subdued her." (Adichie, 135)
Uju did not adapt or flourish in America and her hair between the rough
braids or straightened shows that state. On the other hand, Ifemelu's
hair shows her journey from her home in Lagos to America and
struggling to adapt to finding herself and her identity and trying to help
others to do the same. After Ifemelu straightened her hair and it
started to fall out and she was trying to drench her unnatural hair in
unnatural conditioners to fix the problem, Wambui told her "Relaxing
your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you
You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to
do." (Adichie, 257-258) But once Ifemelu cut her hair and freed herself
from the false ideal pressed upon her hair and her identity, she began
to flourish again. "She looked into the mirror, sank her fingers into her
hair, dense and spongy and glorious, and could not imagine it any
other way. That simply, she fell in love with her hair." (Adichie, 264)

And once Ifemelu moved back to Nigeria, she connected with Bisola
and Yagazie, "both of whom had natural hair, worn in a twist-out, a halo
of spirals framing their faces." (Adichie, 501) Hair is so closely tied to
identity and culture that it is used as the outward indicator for the
internal journey traveled by characters within the book.
Hair is the biggest symbol in Americanah in not only length of
use but quantity in connection with the bigger themes and topics that
the book discusses like the ideals and assumptions in race, identity,
and cultures.