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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 15, 2014 at 2:03PM

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

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.

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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