“I didn’t feel black until I came to America.”
Out of all the true, surprising, maddening quotes in Americanah, this is the one–voiced by the Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu–that sticks with me. I’ve spent a month thinking about why. During that month, another black man died in the custody of police in Baltimore. The conversation is getting louder, but in my mind, these nine words ring louder still.
Before reading them, I think I naively assumed identity was self-determined by either intentionally taking it on or intentionally rejecting what other people try to put on you. Yes, I am a bookish disciple of Jesus who is proudly Midwestern, even when that means I’m a little too quaint. No, I’m not a selfish Millennial who doesn’t know how to, like, write without using emojis.
I thought I got to decide all that myself. And the kicker is that, more than most, I do. I’m a 29-year-old white woman raised in a middle class family, college-educated, surrounded by people who believe in me and tell me I get to call the shots in my heart, my life, and my career.
Americanah woke me up to the reality that a 29-year-old black woman raised in a middle class family, college-educated, and surrounded by people who believe in her is told in ways both overt and subtle that she doesn’t get to call the shots, not all the time.
Because identity isn’t always our choice. Identity is often a reaction to what makes You different from Them, and what You and Them think about those differences. Ifemelu wasn’t black until she came to America, where we notice it and mark it and wrap up generalizations and history and misunderstandings and shame in one word. (In an interesting paragraph, Ifemelu says class is Nigeria’s “black.”)
That sentence–and the rest of the book–made me look hard at myself. I’ve always been taught and always believed that color doesn’t matter*, that we’re all precious souls on equal footing with our Creator. But at the same time, I recognized some of the stereotypes she brings up, some malicious, some not (assuming every woman in Africa is some kind of Earth Mother, assuming they need our help and our technology, assuming our literature/fashion/music/you name it is higher quality). I dug into my mind and saw work that still needs to be done on my heart.
It’s hard to say this publicly. I practiced by telling Brad, telling my coworkers, and telling my friends. This is the power of storytelling–to put you in someone else’s skin and realize how you judged that skin before. You come out at the end a little different, if you’re honest with yourself. I’m trying to be honest with myself. It’s been a month since I read Americanah, but it’s still making me examine each thought that comes into my mind. Some are good, some are bad. Each one needs to be held up to the light that will make it shine brighter or burn away what’s not true.
*Our church is currently going through a sermon series examining movies and the power they have to show us God and Truth. Each week there is a podcast that digs deeper into the topic. A few weeks ago, the topic was Selma and justice. In it, one of the guests made an excellent statement about how being “color blind” is a mistake because that erases a huge part of someone’s identity. Instead, recognize difference, try to understand difference, and celebrate difference. The whole podcast was challenging and encouraging. You can listen to it here. (Episode 3.)