Ashok B. Boghani

Jun 2, 2020

4 min read

Of immigrants and race

I finished reading an interesting book by a Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Titled “Americanah” it describes in vivid details the life of two fictional characters who grew up in Nigeria but spent time in US, and UK. What make it especially colorful are people and experiences they encounter in their journey.

We who grew up in India, also a developing country like Nigeria, can easily relate to what the author describes in the first part of the book, the life in the “old country.”

For example, a rich Nigerian woman tells one of the main characters of the book, Obinze, “You must send your child to the French school. If you want to disadvantage your child by sending to one of these schools with half-baked Nigerian teachers, then you only have yourself to blame.”

That reminded me of a conversation one of my father’s friends had with my parents. “You should send Ashok to this exclusive school (yes, we had one in the town where I grew up) whose headmaster is an Englishman. How can you send him to a Gujarati school, where all the common folks go?” Thankfully my parents ignored him and I did not turn out to be too bad for the experience, just like Obinze.

The other main character of the book, Ifemelu, leaves Nigeria and arrives in US. She does encounter racism, as can be expected. However, as the story is set in the Northeast (New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts), this treatment is not overt. True, she has difficulty in finding a job, due to the covert racism, but at the same time, most of the white folks she encounters are nice to her, almost overcompensating in their attempts not to sound racist or uncaring rich.

For Kimberly (a white upper-middle class woman), the poor were blameless. Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were foreign poor.

In describing another encounter with upper-middle class white Americans; Ifemelu observed that Americans use the word “wonderful” too often. “In Tanzania, we had a wonderful tour guide. We are making donations to a wonderful charity in Malawi, a wonderful orphanage in Botswana, and a wonderful microfinance cooperative in Kenya.”

Just substitute India for all the African countries, and that would be the conversation I have had with so many people in this wonderful country. I remember an instance when one of my friends, upon looking at picture of one of my aunts said that she looked so pretty. That was not the adjective I had ever heard in connection with that particular aunt. However, my friend was overcompensating and making sure that I would not think she co-relates color of the skin and prettiness.

One of the most interesting parts of the book describes Ifemelu’s interactions with the African Americans. When her Blog about the experience of being black in America is being discussed by a group of African Americans, one rather pompous character says, “You know Ifemelu can write that Blog because she is an African. She is writing from the outside. She does not really feel all the stuff she is writing about. It’s all quaint and curious to her. So she can write it and get all the accolades. If she were African American, she would just be labeled angry and be shunned.”

In my bachelor days, I had a number of African friends from Nigeria, Ghana and the Cameroons. One of them had married an African American woman. I had always assumed that there was a common thread, both being black and of African heritage. How stupid I was. The marriage did not last long at all. My friend, just could not get along with his strong minded and independent wife, who was all American, and hardly African.

Ifemelu made the same mistake. When she did not participate in a college protest against an injustice suffered by a black security guard, her African American boy friend just could not understand. He accused her not merely about her laziness, her lack of zeal and conviction, but also about her Africanness; she was not sufficiently furious because she was African, not African American.

I can imagine our children facing a similar (but actually reverse) situation when dealing with people from India, who would assume a certain level of Indianness in them that they do not have. That is a continuing story of the great melting pot that our country is.

This is a very worthwhile book to read on multiple levels. It makes you think more deeply about immigrants and race, and about developing and developed world. It also makes you aware of what it is like being black in this world.