The main character, Ifemelu, leaves Nigeria to join her Aunty Uju and son Dike, In New York City. She leaves her sweetheart, Obinze, behind but pledges herself to him and dreams of them being together in America. Life in America, as an immigrant, is not exactly as she had hoped it would be and she suddenly becomes aware of the color of her skin, an anomaly in Nigeria since they are all the same color there. Her “blackness” now becomes a part of her and her foreignness becomes somewhat of an obstacle and an invitation to engage in undesirable behavior.
Unable to find work, she compromises herself, and filled with shame, severs her relationship with Obinze, the love of her life, cutting off all contact, refusing to answer his calls or letters. Time goes by; she gets employment, finds new boyfriends, but soon grows disappointed with the way blacks are treated in America. She quits her job to create a blog to expose the difference between Non-American and American blacks and to fill the gap created by magazines that concentrate predominantly on providing information for white people. Her blog becomes very successful and she begins her climb up the ladder of success. Eventually, however, she grows disappointed with her life again (disappointment seems to be her constant returning companion), and she sells her blog and returns to Nigeria, reacquainting herself with her friends and, eventually, Obinze, also called “ceiling” by Ifemelu, and the Zed by his friends. He, too, has grown successful and is married with a child. He can be described possibly as content, but not as a happy man.
The book is largely about racism and Obama is featured as well. Ifemelu makes it a point to denounce those who don’t agree with her accusations of particular forms of racism, as in buzz words, advertising, employment, etc., as racists themselves. This is where I parted company with the book. The Progressive mantra that anyone who disagrees with or dislikes a person of color is racist was now falling on my deaf ears. It is sad that this foolishness has taken hold so firmly in a novel purporting to be about contrasting life in America with life in Nigeria and the black immigrant’s experience in America contrasted with the black American’s.
Fictional Ifemelu and her American boyfriend Blaine, fall into the category of Obamaphiles, voting for Obama simply because of his color, not his qualifications. It is too bad, since the country can be proven to have gone downhill with his time in office. He was not prepared for, nor does he seem to want to engage in, the necessary actions of a President, maintaining and supporting a strong America? It is impossible to judge their decision in the present; his legacy is still in the making.
Ifemelu is self consumed. She seems to appreciate little of the opportunity provided for her in America; her business success, her kind boyfriends, being able to cross color lines easily, and her economic good fortune are all simply expected. Contentment eludes her. America is a multi-cultural world, unlike Nigeria, and she finds herself feeling adrift at times, becoming Americanized in ways she dislikes, i.e., the way Americans speak in a lazy manner, with slang and improper grammar, with the way they comport themselves too casually and dress themselves in too risqué a manner. Ifemelu is, however, flighty in her own relationships, allowing herself to cross lines when she does not afford that privilege to others. Her judgment against those who offend her, sometimes in slight and unknowing ways, is severe, immediate and unforgiving. I often found her selfish and ungrateful, that although she extolled certain of the moral values of Nigeria, she failed to follow them herself. Other times, she recognized the necessity of unethical behavior in herself and her country, but not in other people or in America. The book simply put, seemed contrived to me, too filled with racism, when in fact, Ifemelu became successful, and she was accepted into white society far more gracefully than she accepted whites into hers. I suppose that makes me racist rather than honest, according to Ifemelu and Progressives.
Some accusations of racism seemed outlandish and overly sensitive like when dealing with the lexicon of words. Sassy was considered a racist adjective when directed toward a black person, according to Ifemelu and her Aunty. I never knew sassy to have any, but the most ordinary meaning of impish, feisty and playful.
Over sensitivity and finger pointing was rife throughout the book. She made many racist comments about whites and their behavior, but if you disagreed, as I do, you were labeled racist. It is a convenient excuse to cover one’s own inability to accomplish what one wants or for finding the road to hoe a difficult one. Whites and blacks find the road to hoe bumpy; she and other immigrants did not own the monopoly on that score. She resented America for Americanizing immigrants, she was unhappy about discovering her “blackness”, all bad habits developed were blamed on Americans, the same Americans who embraced them and gave them opportunity, rather than condemn their own poor judgment or choices.
Some of these same immigrants arrived in America, became street smart when taught by other immigrants, broke the law by assuming false identities, used fake social security cards, engaged in false marriages to get their citizenship, committed crimes to feed their families and then blamed America for their hardships and the changes they made in themselves.
Truthfully, this book did not endear me to Ifemelu’s plight or to her complaints, or to those of her Aunty. I thought they engaged in a good deal of self pity. Most of my mother-in-law’s family (Jewish) was murdered in Europe, and as Jews it was not easy to find work, but my father-in-law pushed and shoved clothing racks, in the garment center, when he got sick and lost his Navy Yard job. Neither of them blamed America for their plight, they were grateful they were there. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and began again. That is the gift America gives all “the tired and poor”. I did not like Ifemelu. She was hard, unforgiving, discontented and unrelenting in her complaining. She judged everyone around her, but was angry if you judged her. She complained about the morality and ethics in America but then went back to Nigeria, about which she complained as well, She broke all the rules she knew she should follow, especially the one about fidelity.
I think this book is considered great for several reasons: it is about race and people might be afraid to say how they truly feel since the term racism is loosely thrown about with abandon. No one wants to be unfairly branded racist because they express a contrary review of the book. It is common knowledge that the literary world is liberal; they follow the talking points of their leaders. I hope I don’t get hate mail for my honesty.
Regardless of my criticism about the content, I have to say it was written well and held my interest most of the time. It simply got tedious, redundant and sometimes frustrating to read about the same grievances over and over again, blaming others, always, never herself or her fellow immigrants for anything except for becoming Americanized. She even considered herself better than American blacks. She often condescended to whites and blacks alike, assuming an air of superiority. I hope the picture she painted about how immigrants feel in this country is wrong, for if it is, they truly don’t appreciate what this country has to offer immigrants from all nations, white and black, of all religions and of all ethnicities. As Ifemelu was defensive about her own country, I am equally defensive about mine, and I was offended by some of the narrative that seemed so anti-American and although rarely, there was a suggestion of anti-Semitism. To blithely dismiss centuries of Jewish suffering and slavery is disingenuous, especially, if the author is presenting a novel in which the main character is so sensitive to issues of race. By the end of the book, I expected the author to write, “it is all George Bush’s fault” or sarcastically, to “blame it on the bossanova”!