Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Learning To Be Black In The USA + My Own Personal Tales...

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 15, 2014 2:03 PM
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Editor's note: As 2014 begins, I'll be reposting some of our highlight published last year (2013). Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's a piece I originally published in June. Happy New Year to you all! 

There's a running joke amongst black people who weren't born and raised in America, but who, at some point in their lives, moved to America, that goes something like this: I didn't know I was black until I came to the USA.

Those aren't the exact words (they escape me at the moment), but I think you can understand the point. In a nutshell, commentary on/criticism of this social construct known as race.

It's kind of a messy thing, isn't it?

I enjoyed this 40-minute NPR interview with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, discussing her new novel, Americanah, and thought I'd share it.

In it, she discusses being a Nigerian in the USA, and the adjustments she had to make when she first came to the States as a 19-year-old, to attend college. She shares some humorous stories, that I, as someone who was also born in Nigeria, but who moved to the USA at a much younger age than she did (I wasn't quite a teenager yet), found myself nodding in recognition of - stories on her early struggles to adapt, and come to terms with this thing called race, and *blackness*, as it's defined in this country. 

Essentially, learning what you, as a black person in America (no matter where you're from), should think and feel, and how you should react or not react to stimuli, as if we're a monolith. We live in a world were conformity rules over individuality, so there's constant pressure to fit in - and maybe even more specifically, fit into the group that you've been assigned by the larger body politic, if only because of the color of your skin.

It all can get very touchy I think, when we start highlighting our differences, even as black people, all over the world. From what I've observed, on both sides of the Atlantic, there's sometimes a sense that one wants to feel superior over the other, or looks down at the other. No one wants to be at the bottom of global society's hierarchy, I suppose. 

But, inevitably, we're all African, right?

As Chimamanda does, I could tell many stories as well, for example, recalling the way white Americans treated me in high school and college, as an African in America (as opposed to an African American), believing that they were paying me a compliment by telling me things like: "you're not like the others." 

I remember being perplexed back then, not really understanding what exactly they meant when they said things like that, asking them who these "others" were that they were referring to. 

I was young; I'd been in this country for a year or two, working very hard at just trying to fit in - especially with the black American students at my majority white (I'd say 99% white) Catholic high school in Columbus, OH. But I didn't quite fit in anywhere with my thick non-American accent, the awkward and uncertain way I carried myself, in this good ol' midwestern, strictly conservative, Christian, Republican town. I couldn't dance, I wasn't much of an athlete (at least initially - I would go on to play a year of football, was on the track and basketball teams, before graduating), etc. In short, I wasn't all those things that I was expected to be as a black kid in high school in America, and, in a weird way, I was looked down upon for that reason, and my *blackness* (if you will), was questioned - interestingly, not only by the white American kids, but the black Americans challenge me as well on that front.

It was truly all very perplexing to my pubescent mind.

Eventually I would come to understand it all as I aged and lived, of course. During those early years, I spent a lot of time alone, and when you do that, you are kind of forced to come to terms with yourself. You think about things a lot, and try to work them all out in your own head.

But, man, those were some of the roughest years of my entire life, and I couldn't wait to leave and go off to college. All I can do now is look back at those years fondly. If anything, they made me tougher in every way.

What's even funnier, is that, as an adult, years later, after living in the USA for many years, when around Nigerian or Cameroonian relatives or friends, whether here in the USA, or in Africa, my *African-ness* (if you will) is sometimes challenged. "You've become too Americanized," they say - mostly in jest, but still, at times, irksome.

It's as if I can't win either way. Funny, isn't it?

But all one can do is grin and bear it. After all, the only thing that really matters is that I know who I am, and I'm ok with who that person is.

Like I said, I could tell all kinds of stories about my early experiences as a *new* African in America, in the early 1990s. But instead, I'll just hand the mic over to Chimamanda to wax philosophic, since she does it all a lot better.

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  • blackman | January 15, 2014 11:28 PMReply

    She wants a White man. She will be rich and lonely. Or she will get her MONEY taken by a trashy white dude.

    The thing is: Africans KNOW poverty and they are Classist. Africans voice changes when they get around Whites. I feel sorry for Africans in america. They don't belong anywhere.

    It's a darn shame they do not know it is White people that is keeping their countries BROKE/IMPOVERISHED/BUSTED AND DISEASED.


  • lilkunta | July 11, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    @melissaenafrique: since when is Kerry Washington carribbean ?

  • KaffeeKlatsch | January 17, 2014 11:44 AM

    Tony, if wikipedia is to be believed only her mother is Jamaican, and it sounds like her mom was probably born in America: "Her father's family is African American, from South Carolina and Brooklyn, and her mother's family is Jamaican American, from Manhattan; Washington has said that her mother is from a "mixed-race background but from Jamaica, so she is partly English and Scottish and Native American, but also descended from African slaves in the Caribbean"

  • TONY | January 15, 2014 8:07 PM

    Her parents are both Jamaican.

  • MumBi | July 2, 2013 8:44 AMReply

    That running joke is the truth to some extent. I considered myself widely read, culturally aware. I grew up in multicultural Nairobi- Kenya, went to a multicultural schools, my best friends are from cultures outside Africa. I'd traveled extensively outside the continent, before I ended up settling in a country I had visited many times before UK- (Liverpool) for my college years. I did not know I was black till then.

  • Toronto | June 30, 2013 5:31 AMReply

    Jay, by your comment I'm assuming you're Afro American?
    What you don't understand is for the majority of blacks who immigrate here, we are use to being the majority in our respective countries. While there's pockets of other races here and there, we are use to being the ones in control. Our neighbours, teachers, doctors, preachers, presidents/prime ministers have all been primarily black, so we aren't hung up on race as Canada/America/u.k. Is. So I'm simpler terms, the author always knew he/she was black but like most black immigrants, didn't know how much being black actually mattered in this society.

  • Jerome | January 15, 2014 4:49 PM

    Wow. Jaymack seems really defensive. What's that really about? Because from where I'm sitting those posts reek of indoctrination and groupthink — as if someone needs to feel "superior" by insulting the diverse immigrant experience in order to feel less marginalized in their own life.

    Why would someone be "stupid" if they weren't forced to view life primarily through a race based lens?

  • LL2 | July 16, 2013 1:36 AM


    If you are so knowledgeable about Africa, you would know that Africa is not a country, and therefore your individual experience in one place can not be generalized to an entire continent. As my father would say, that is intellectual laziness. It is also impossible that you visited every country in Africa so your statement is false. I actually doubt you have been to Africa, seriously which African country did you visit that did not have a college? The one in your head? Which African country did you visit where blacks did not own their land? Seriously, you are making this stuff up. I'm surprised no one has called you on it. African Americans aren't going to Africa in part because many don't travel outside the US except perhaps to go to the Caribbean, period. However, you will see many whites, South and East Asians going to Africa. But this is not an argument about which group is better because I have a multi-ethnic background (West African, black American, and Afro-Carribean) and I am proud of all my heritage. My point was to call out the inaccuracies and downright falsehoods in your comment.

  • JaySmack | July 12, 2013 10:25 AM

    I've actually been to Africa and I didn't see ANY Africans "in control" of anything. I saw whites --many of whom not even residents!-- who owned the land, Asians who owned the banks and arabs who were main "cultural" influence. You can't even go to "college" in Africa, you have to leave the whole damned continent. I've noticed that Africans have this stupid arrogance that they use as a shield to mask the shame of their total societal failure by saying self-deceptive nonsense like "I didn't know I was black." They even try to look down on African Americans, which is the ultimate self-deception.
    You don't see any African Americans trying to get back to Africa, but you see a TON of Africans trying to get to the US. They didn't know they were "black," but couldn't wait to get to where the blacks are. Who do they think they're fooling? Themselves, I suppose.
    And don't put words in the author's mouth. She didn't say that she "didn't know how much being black actually mattered in this society," she said, ""

  • Toronto | June 30, 2013 5:20 AMReply

    It's funny how I've always felt the same way as the author and can definitely relate to kadie. I came to Canada barely a teenager back in the mid nineties from a caribbean island. While I always knew I was part of the black race I wasn't aware of my blackness and what it meant to be a black person in Canada. I felt left out and struggled to fit in with the other Canadian born blacks and whites alike. They didn't understand why I preferred cricket and soccer to basketball or football. They didn't understand why I preferred soca and sometimes reggae to hiphop. Blacks in western countries are held to a certain standard and they expect all other blacks to come and just automatically fall in line.

  • JaySmack | June 29, 2013 9:24 AMReply

    If someone "didn't know they were black" until they came to the US then they also didn't know what planet they were on either.
    No cure for stupid.

  • JaySmack | July 12, 2013 10:15 AM

    I do have a passport, which, unlike you, I've used for more than to immigrate out of whatever 3rd-world hellhole I was born into. You clearly don't need a passport, you need a brain.
    Then again, why give you something that you clearly wouldn't use?

  • MumBi | July 2, 2013 8:37 AM

    Truly there is no cure for stupid. Jay could do with a passport... oh then again.. there really is NO cure for his level of stupidity.

  • moionfire | June 30, 2013 1:24 AM

    When you live in a country is all black you don't have to muse about your race. I think that is what she meant.

  • JaySmack | June 29, 2013 11:50 PM

    Thank you for proving my point. And before you ask, I do regret that there's no cure for your disease.

  • MK | June 29, 2013 10:05 AM

    Sounds like you have never lived abroad.

  • Katie | June 28, 2013 9:39 AMReply

    "But, inevitably, we're all African, right?" <<<This right chea! My father is Jamaican and my mother is African-American from Mississippi that emigrated to Chicago during the last years of the great migration but I understand my race is African and my culture is African-American and Jamaican. I keep trying to tell people that African is a race, but they ain't trying to hear it. Many African-American think it's a monolithic culture, but it's not. I'm only 21, but I'm glad that I'm an avid reader or I would have the same misinformed view.

    My book club on goodreads is getting ready to read her new book next month and I already have it on hold at the library and it's ready to get picked up. I can't wait.

    P.S. I also grew up in a white town and was the only black girl in my class. Though I never really had any problems, I did too feel bad that I didn't live up to my white schoolmates ideals of what it means to be black (i.e. knowing how to dance and knowing popular hip-hop and r&b music.) I tried to be more "black" but I just couldn't. I remember spending hours watching BET trying to be more "black" but I just gave up and turned to MTV and continued to read teen vogue and classic children's literature like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. By that time, I was homeschooled and no one ever discouraged me from liking what I liked. Thank God for my mother having the sense to homeschool me than send me to the failing Chicago public school or I wouldn't have turned out to be a very different person because of peer pressure.

  • BluTopaz | June 30, 2013 5:58 PM

    KATIE -my apologies, you are right--I misunderstood your comment.

  • CC | June 29, 2013 9:50 PM

    Opps... I've participated in "many" discussions.

  • CC | June 29, 2013 8:47 PM

    Katie, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. Listen, I've participated in my discussions/debates on this board (hundreds) but I'd be hard pressed to pick one more honest and poignant than your comments. I mean, for starters, I've never heard a black person on this board say this-->"I truly thought race didn't matter and whites were the center of everything, Anglo-Saxon was better, and was disassociated with Blacks and Black history in general"

    To admit that speaks to a person who is very secure with who they are now. And, I believe it's safe to say, to a large degree many black are still stuck back "there", consciously disassociating themselves with anything whites may consider as "being black". But that's another conversation for another time because you got your "check up" (ni99a wake up call) at just the right time. :-)

    And when you said the following, I again thought of my daughter--> "This happened to me too. I was even called an "oreo" once before because of it"

    Yep, on several occasions I'd drop my daughter off for track practice in the "hood". She may not have been called an "oreo", but most of the girls believed she thought that she was better than them. Heck, this is the same girl who called their neighborhood Nigger Town and she did, at times, talk like a white girl, okay. So if it quacks like a duck...

    But these days we all laugh when she reflects back on those early days in the old neighborhood. She tells a story of being chased to her grandmothers house after practice. The girls were chasing her and yelling "you better run with your rich girl black ass".

    And the following tops off our exchange.

    "While at one time I was comfortable around whites, as I grew older, read more about black/African history, and experienced racism, I became hesitant around them and choose to stick around my own kind. Less to deal with."

    Well my young friend, you are wise, honest and mature beyond your years, and your parents obviously raised you right.

  • Katie | June 29, 2013 7:02 PM

    @BLUTOPAZ You know, I had initially intended to respond to your post bit by bit, but I'm not going to waste my time. It's clear you didn't read what I said AT ALL and your whole post is just insulting, rude, and condescending. I really don't need you to remind or lecture me on things I ALREADY KNOW. Why you would think I wouldn't know what you know regarding race and identity politics is beyond me.

    P.S. I know that blackness is not just dance and music. Whites who I grew up with did. - "I didn't live up to my white schoolmates ideals of what it means to be black (i.e. knowing how to dance and knowing popular hip-hop and r&b music.)"

    When I said peer pressure, I mean from the few African-Americans that wanted me to do/be certain things just because I was black in my experience. Like do things I ain't had no business doing or stop doing things that I enjoyed. From whites, it was more like micro-aggressions. Like, why would I know something about R&B, basketball, and the latest dance moves? Come on now.

    "Also, what are the "cultures" and races of the individuals/friends you most relate to and associate with today?"<<<Culture: I identify with mostly African-American, with dash of Jamaican because I grew up with my AA mother but would spend weekends and whole summers with my Jamaican dad, stepmother, and grandmother. Races: African/black. Culture doesn't matter to me, just if we have a mutual bond. While at one time I was comfortable around whites, as I grew older, read more about black/African history, and experienced racism, I became hesitant around them and choose to stick around my own kind. Less to deal with.

    "The problem was, our daughter, because of her environment(s) away from the home, had taken on the ideologies, prejudices and ways of white folks." <<<This happened to me too. I was even called an "oreo" once before because of it. I truly thought race didn't matter and whites were the center of everything, Anglo-Saxon was better, and was disassociated with Blacks and Black history in general. Then I got my ni99a wake up call, started reading more about racism, and changed my views for the better.

    "So again, I was hoping you came back and shared your experience as a women with black skin who was raised in a white community, who may find yourself living in different worlds at any given time. How has your experience shaped who you are today?"

    Being Around Whites: My politics, religion, visual arts, economics, what I consider fun.

    Being Around Blacks: Sociology, What music, languages, and architecture I appreciate, What type of myths, legends and folklore I enjoy, what history I care to learn about.

    Black&White: My feelings on Philosophy & Media and what constitutes as good Literature.

  • BluTopaz | June 29, 2013 4:28 PM

    @ Katie:

    If you still think "what it means to be black" solely means knowing how to dance, listening to black music and adhering to certain stereotypes to satisfy your white schoolmates, then you are probably as misinformed as they were.

    And since you are such an avid reader you should also know your character does not have to be dependent on your environment ("or I wouldn't have turned out to be a very different person because of peer pressure.") I grew up in the seventies in the projects of an upstate NY small city. I was in love with all my books which was all classic children's literature as well, my fave movie as a kid was Yellow Submarine with all it's acid, 70's trippiness. I did not turn out to be a statistic despite my surroundings, and there are plenty of Black women like me and you. Nothing special, but it does imply a strong individuality that could not be easily influenced by "peer pressure".

    Lastly, it's not only some Black Americans who think we are a monolithic race; talk to some Black people throughout the diaspora and many think their nationality & culture represents all of Black people on Earth.

  • CC | June 29, 2013 2:04 PM

    "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"

    I am sure most recognize those words from Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech. Although a very inspiring and rousing speech, that particular point will remain a dream. I am suggesting that "race" and a person's skin color will always matter until the end of time. And, the beauty and disdain of that issue will be in the eyes of the beholder.

    To that point, upon first meeting a person I never know what they think about me, nor do I know their preconceived prejudices against my race. However, I am a dark-skinned black man. Consequently, my color will be their first reference. I don't care what anyone tells us or hopes to believe, we all (whites and blacks) harbor some form of prejudice, which are shaped, formed and indelibly etch in our minds by our "environments".

    So Katie, I was hoping you came back because your "story" is similar to that of my daughter. My wife and I are black and like your family, we lived in a white community. Therefore, like you, my daughter's classmates were all white. So check out what happened.

    One day I decided to take the family on day trip to my old neighborhood (a black neighborhood). When we arrived my daughter said "here we are in nigger town". Listen, my wife said "STOP THIS DAMN CAR!". She actually said a few more choice words which I can't/won't repeat, but she was very upset to say the least. She snatched our daughter by her neck (yep, she didn't touch her lightly 'cause she wanted give her something she's could feel and remember) and told her to look in the mirror. And then said, "Who the hell do you think you are?!". She wasn't referring to the word "nigger", she wanted her to know that she (our daughter) will always be black. The problem was, our daughter, because of her environment(s) away from the home, had taken on the ideologies, prejudices and ways of white folks.

    That day was a defining moment in the evolution of who our daughter is today. Her mother and I set out on a mission to make sure she never forgets who she is. She remained in that school district but whenever possible, most of her outside activities (we like to call them cultural exchanges) where in a black culture. And, I am proud to say that decision has served her well. She's a district manager for a popular/large cooperation. Some of her duties require her to visit "black neighborhoods". Okay, in her professional life she tends NOT to speak in her "black vernacular" if you will and she dresses like a professional black woman. So sometimes her black clients/subordinates (and whites too) as she says... wanna talk to her like she's crazy, or you know "not black". Long story short, she has to show them her blackness. That's right, she can break it down with the best, letting all her black experience hang out, when she has to, or when she desire to do so 'cause she has lived in both worlds.

    So again, I was hoping you came back and shared your experience as a women with black skin who was raised in a white community, who may find yourself living in different worlds at any given time. How has your experience shaped who you are today?

  • CC | June 29, 2013 11:45 AM

    Katie, thanks for sharing your experience. As you know (since you've been reading this site) the issue and/or question of "what constitutes being black" has been talked about ad nauseam at this blog, but your "admissions" is somewhat new, and refreshing. So help me out. You said you didn't experience "peer pressure", yet you said you were the only black girl in your class. I am suggesting that "peer pressure" is not necessarily related to a person's skin color, so could you clarify your statement.

    Also, what are the "cultures" and races of the individuals/friends you most relate to and associate with today?

  • Katie | June 29, 2013 9:52 AM


    U mad? And I'm not new to this damn site and I can choose whatever I want to identify with. Whatchu gon do? Nothing but sit you're raggedy behind down behind your computer screen and seethe. African is my race, American is my nationality, African-American/Jamaican is my culture. Get it? You do know the difference between the three right? Talmbout I need to remove some books from my circulation, you need to ADD some books to your damn circulation. Tell you what, you worry about what you choose to identify with, and I'll worry about what I choose to identify with, okay?

    Besides, there ain't nothing you can do about what I choose to identify with so just get over it. lol

  • Winston | June 28, 2013 9:43 AM

    @Katie-- You must be new to this site. Ummmm . . . try again, boo. Your race is not "African". Whatever books you're reading should be removed from circulation.

  • Goldenrail | June 27, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Thank you for writing this. I previously listened to Adiche's interview and always enjoy hearing perspectives from Africans who come to the US, partly because the experiences are so different from my own and also because of the surprising similarities.
    I actually just posted on my own blog about my experiences growing up white in America and not being able to come terms with my race until I moved to Africa (first Zambia, and later Nigeria). If you're interested, it's at

  • Melissaenafrique | June 28, 2013 4:11 AM

    Will check it out. I'm an African who lived in the West for a bit, then returned to Africa- only to look at foreigners there a bit differently (due to what I had learned in the West). Cheers! :)

  • Kadie | June 27, 2013 8:36 PMReply

    When I lived in the Caribbean (where I was born and raised) I was aware of my colour, and my African ancestry, but as echoed by many Black immigrants, I did not become Black (as it is understood in a North American context until I moved here. I struggled in the beginning to cling on to the only identity I had known, a Grenadian/West-Indian or African descent OR an Afro-Caribbean woman. It is not that I was trying to claim some superiority over other Black people, nor was it a denial of my roots, but I am not that quick to claim the "I am African" label. First of all, I don't even know what it means to be African, culturally speaking. I see many similarities in our culture but that's all, there's no sense of belonging.

    Also in recent times I have recognized that I don't relate to many of the Black experiences here, in North America, Canada to be exact. I come from a small island, where everyone knew everyone and there was a strong sense of community. I was raised by a village.

    Funnily I would add that not only did I become Black when I moved here, I also grew more Grenadian/West Indian. It's very easy to get lost in this metropolis, so I cling on to what I know.

  • Melissaenafrique | June 28, 2013 4:22 AM


    In regards to your last sentence, many of the strugglers (Louis Farrakhan, Marcus Garvey) etc had West Indian heritage as well. When you read their rhetoric though, you will see a sort of 'we can do better than this' tone towards native Blacks- which can be interpreted as 'looking down upon'. It's a complicated issue... many black actresses we enjoy and are celebrated as opening doors for other Blacvks, have West Indian heritage as well (Kerry Washington, Roxie Roker, Nia Long, Lela Rochon, Garcelle Beauvais, Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson). So we all open doors for each other, in my humble opinion.

  • MsBookworm | June 28, 2013 1:54 AM

    Awwh so cool your like my mom :D!! She moved from Grenada to Canada in the 70s when she was 21. But she still holds on to the culture and passed it on to me and my sister. And since we were born in Canada we were exposed to North American culture too but we always identify as Caribbean first. All Canadians do that identify with their original heritage unless their family has been in Canada for generations or if they are first nations (aboriginal) people. Whereas Americans identify as being American first. But I can't stand when some people from the west indies put down americans... like hello without the struggles they went through you wouldn't have any opportunities to live in America or Canada even.

  • No | June 27, 2013 8:25 PMReply

    I read "Half of a Yellow Sun" and it is one of the best books ever written, and she is a very good-looking woman. Can't wait to read her second novel.

  • juliette | June 27, 2013 8:15 PMReply

    Thanks for sharing this! She is a fascinating writer - I'm about 1/3rd of the way through the book - and I plan to read more from her. It is interesting how this theme keeps coming up but I"m glad that this conversation is taking place. Maybe one day, we won't need it......

  • JIHUDI | June 27, 2013 8:15 PMReply

    Great article all around. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Now imagine if your ancestors were freed slaves who went back to Africa established a country and then because of a civil war you find yourself back in the belly of the beast. It's certainly as if you can't win either way.

  • JEFTCG | June 27, 2013 8:06 PMReply

    This woman is fine and there should be more pictures of her on this website. That is all.

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  • Anthony | June 27, 2013 7:55 PMReply

    Thanks for sharing, Tambay!

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