Black Hair and Beauty in Race Relations in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Mildred N. Sikuku1, Ben Nyongesa2
Page 42-53

4.1  Abstract

Hair and race in Adichie’s Americanah is an intertwined theme that cannot be overlooked as it runs across the novel. From while Ifemelu is at home in Nigeria to her stay in the US. Hair and for that African hair continue to elicit uproar and debates in regard to race. Hair is a physiologically produced aspect of the human body which contributes a lot to one’s physical being. It has been used to define standards of beauty. This article sets out to analyze hair politics and what is considered beautiful in the WEST. As such the paper examines some attributes that make hair the medium of significant statements about self and society and the codes of value that bind them or do not. Hair can be likened to a raw material since it goes through various processes in the name of grooming, preparing, and shaving or be totally concealed as in cases of Muslim women. This article limits itself to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. The study employed the postcolonial theorization of Hall Stuart to investigate the above concerns. This study was library based as the research relied on the secondary sources. A close and in-depth reading of the text was done. This article concluded that hair texture, pigmentation and skull formation are major determinants in race statuses and discrimination. The findings recommended that there is need for Western cultures who pride themselves in the ideology of superiority, freedom and equality for all and the long held faith in the American dream to re-evaluate their national values.  There is need for the WEST  to appreciate African hair and pigmentation and embrace such beauty without placing undue pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty standard that are later renounced by immigrants.

KEYWORDS: Race, African hair Texture, Beauty, Identity, Pigmentation, immigrants

4.2  Introduction

African hair and its attendant racism are among the major themes that Adichie handles exclusively in Americanah. The symbolic value of hair is perhaps clearest in religious practices such as a mark of worldly renunciation in Christianity or Buddhism, for example or growing hair as a sign of inner spiritual strength for Sikh. Mercer (1994) in Welcome To The Jungle , New Positions In Black Cultural Studies, argues that where ‘race’ structures social relations  of power, hair –as visible as skin color , but also the most tangible sign of racial difference- takes on another forcefully symbolic dimension .(p.101). He contends that if racism is conceived as an ideological code in which biological attributes are invested with societal values and meanings, then it is because our hair is perceived within this frame work that is burdened with a range of negative connotations (p.101). This observation clearly underpins the idea that hair plays a pivotal role in apportioning the socioeconomic status, shaping the identity and beauty standards of people.

The citizens of the US rank freedom and equality as their most significant values Massey (2016 P .1) Adichie’s recent output Americanah is a work of fiction that reflects a critical view of American cultural values, especially those pertaining to diversity and opportunity. This article compared American perceptions of the US culture and values with the experience reflected in Adichie’s Americanah. Adichie has handled many themes in her current work but this article delimited itself to hair politics and race.  The study set out to investigate African hair as a major contributor to the segregation of black immigrants to particularly to the US. It examined how fictional writers linked hair texture to beauty standards, race and power relations. Based on the study, this article examined various racial prejudices underpinned to hair texture and beauty in Americanah (2013).

4. 3  Methodology

The Research Design adopted qualitative research design which relies on the collection of non-numerical data such as words. This design was appropriate for this study because the data collected are in form of words or texts.

This research employed the qualitative research approach, in this kind of approach the design and techniques do not produce discrete numerical data, here, data are in form of words rather than numbers. Qualitative data was collected through reading the texts. The study employed a vivid descriptive account of the situation being studied in its analysis. Unlike quantitative research, Mugenda and Mugenda (1999:205) qualitative data is done in such a way that as one does the analysis one is also putting the report together.

The report gave an analytical view citing the significance and implications of the finding.

The population of the research was African novels written in English by African immigrants living in America and which allude to the theme of race. Purposive sampling was used to select the Americanah because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a number of titles to her name that include three novels and a short story anthology but only her latest publication fitted the bill.

Since the research at hand involves the use of a secondary text, the researcher did not have much on instruments of data collection.

This research used a secondary source which was one work of art. This is because it was assumed the author had first-hand knowledge that she put in the books. Close reading strategy of literary analysis of the text was applied.

4.4  Findings

Race is defined as one of the main groups that humans can be divided according to their physical differences, for example the color of their skin, pigmentation, skull and bone formation and hair texture (p 101)

‘Race’ [is not] the eternal cause of racism [but is] its complex, unstable product. I should probably emphasize at this point that neither race nor racism are the exclusive historical property of the minorities who are their primary victims. (Gilroy, 2004 as cited by Calvert 2017)


Hair politics, beauty standards, race and power relations is our point of discussion. In Americanah, starting from Nigeria Ifemelu paints a beautiful picture of her mother’s hair which her father referred to as a ‘crown of glory’ Americanah (p 41). This crown of glory was, however, cut off due to religious doctrines. Ifemelu reckons that her mother came home one evening from work looking exhausted and disturbed. She proceeded to demand for a pair of scissors which Ifemelu brought. She cut off handful chunks of her hair and later collected other things associated to Roman Catholic which she set on fire.


“I am saved,” she said. “Mrs.Ojo ministered to me this afternoon during the children’s break and I have received Christ. Old things have passed away and all things have become new. Praise God. On Sunday we will start going to revival saints… (P.41-2)


Ifemelu’s mother‘s action of shaving her ‘crown of glory’ lends credence to what mercer claimed was a religious practice that marks worldly renunciation in Christianity. (p.101).  Beautiful hair as Ifemelu describes in her view before leaving for the US was hair that had been processed and relaxed by chemicals. Ifemelu says the following in regard to her mother’s hair:


It was black-black, so think it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon. So full it took hours under the hooded dryer , and , when finally released from pink plastic rollers , sprang free and full , flowing down her back like a celebration .(p41).


The above excerpt complements what mercer observes as the standard of beauty. He argues that although dominant ideologies of race (the way they dominate) have changed, the legacy of this biologizing and totalizing racism is traced as a presence in everyday comments made about our hair. ‘Good’ hair when used to describe hair on a black person’s head, means hair that looks European, straight, not curly, not kinky. (p101). When someone’s hair does not meet the above threshold in the US, they are unlikely to land any jobs. This, Ifemelu and other female characters in America learn painfully.


When characters make an informed decision to migrate to developed countries it is out of the conviction that these lands have much to offer in terms of opportunities. But on the contrary, upon arrival in these countries, the first challenge they encounter is racism. Racism is something that has never been experienced by most of these Africans in Africa. But it is encountered uncensored in the US and UK. For the new arrivals it is a strange experience that becomes a form of oppression.


Gilroy (2004) contends that racism is not caused by the clash of two or more races-thus racism is not a natural phenomenon. Rather, racial difference and racial identities are products of racial oppression. Racial identities are caused by historical conflicts that have brought different groups into opposition. He contends that it is race that makes the identity of the oppressors and the oppressed seem fixed and uniform. (P3). In Adichie’s Americanah most of the African characters encounter racism first hand after migrating. As Ifemelu, the protagonist in Americanah laments:


‘ I came from a country where race was not an issue;   I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America’. (Adichie, 2013, p. 290)


While back home she is a ‘bourgie Nigerian’. She is from an upper middle-class family, she attends college at Nsukka except that her studies are disrupted by constant chronic lecturers’ strikes. In order to solve this she migrates to the US to attend college in Philadelphia. Her movement changes everything about her. She suddenly belongs to the under-privileged group because of her skin color, as well as other facial features like hair, eyes and nose determines race. For Ifemelu, color indicates a state of inclusion or exclusion.  The idea of being seen as white is normal while black results in exclusion. This assumption that whiteness was the measure of beauty, condemning Europe’s Other to external ugliness Mercer (1994) argues can also be seen in images of race articulated in the nineteenth Century popular culture (p 102). According to him, the minstrel stereotype of Sambo – and his British counterpart, the Golliwog- the “frizzy” hair of character is an essential part of the iconography of inferiority.


Frantz Fanon’s statement that in essence black people only become aware of their blackness in the environment of a white society clearly mirrors Ifemelu’s predicament;


As long as the black man remains on his home territory , except for petty internal quarrels , he will not have to experience his being for others […]for not only must ;the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man . (Fanon 2008 p .89, 90)


As Ifemelu and Obinze migrate to US and United Kingdom, they encounter the many ways in which the white people discriminate against the black people. Ifemelu is shocked when she is turned away after requesting to have her eyebrows waxed. When she visits a beauty spa to have her eye brows shaped the female attendant declines to serve her with the excuse that they don’t do curly. It takes the intervention of her white boyfriend that the attendant ‘transformed into a soliticious coquette’ apologizing that it was a misunderstanding. By curly, they meant black or African. Because of curly hair, Ifemelu cannot have her eyebrows shaped. Her skin color places her at the bottom of the social hierarchy .it only takes the intervention of her white boyfriend to have that small matter settled.


Hair in Adichie’s Americanah is a very sensitive topic since it is used as a form of discrimination. African women have been denied opportunities because of the color and texture of their hair.  We first encounter with ‘hair politics’ in Americanah , when Aunty Uju insists that she will take out her braids and relax her hair for a job interview at a doctor’s office, Ifemelu questions, “So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” (p119) At this point Ifemelu is still new to the US, and does not completely understand the unwritten rules of adjusting oneself to fit in the white American standards. Later on Ifemelu gets a job offer and is supposed to attend an interview, she seeks advice from Ruth, her African American colleague, who advises her, “‘lose the braids and straighten your hair. Nobody says this kind of stuff but it matters, we want you to get that job” (p202). Ifemelu always braided her hair, but when she comes to America she learns bitterly that she is supposed to relax her hair with chemicals or else she will look unprofessional.


Mercer (1994) points out  that the stigmatization of black people’s hair did not gain its  historical intransigence by being a mere idea, but rather where race is a constitutive element of social structure and social division , hair remains powerfully charged with symbolic currency. From his writings, very little has changed from the plantation period to today arguing that plantation societies instituted a ‘pigmentocracy’ thus a division of labor based on racial hierarchy in which ones socioeconomic position could be signified by one’s skin color.


Mercer quotes  Hall Stuart(1977) who emphasizes  the nature of white- bias which he refers to as to as the ethnic scale as both physiological and cultural elements are intertwined in the symbolization of one’s status. Hall contends that opportunities for social mobility are therefore determined by one’s ranking on the ethnic scale and involve the negotiation not only of socioeconomic factors such as wealth , income , education and marriage , but also less easily changeable elements of status symbolism such as the shape of one’s nose or the shade of one’s blackness.(1977, p.150-182) he however, observes that hair on the other hand functions as a key ethnic signifier because compared with other bodily shape or facial features , it can be changed easily by cultural practices such as straightening. This kind of malleability is what makes hair a sensitive area of expression.


Under pressure to conform American standards of professionalism so as to get a job, She relaxes her hair and feels that a part of herself has died with her hair’s natural curl. She can smell her hair burning which figuratively indicates the death of her confidence and identity. Her boyfriend Curt discovers that she replaced her braids in order to straighten her hair and questions why, telling her that her braided hair was ‘gorgeous ‘and that her own hair was ‘even more gorgeous, so full and cool’ when natural. To which Ifemelu responds:


My full and cool hair would work if I were interviewing to be a backup singer in a jazz band, but I need to look professional for this interview, and professional means straight is best but if it’s going to be curly then it has to be the white kind of curly, loose curls or, worst spiral curls but never kinky’ (Adichie, 2013.p.204.)


At this point, Ifemelu harshly defends her decision to straighten her hair even as her white boyfriend contests. It is metaphorical that Ifemelu herself feels gratified while her white boyfriend says her African braided hair was gorgeous. As mercer rightly puts it that discourses of Black Nationalism, such as Marcus Garvey, have always acknowledged that racism works by encouraging the devaluation of blackness by black subjects themselves and that a recentering sense of pride is therefore a prerequisite for politics of resistance and reconstruction.


He goes ahead to quote Fanon (1970 [1952]) as having provided a systemic framework for political analysis of racial hegemonies at a level of black subjectivity. He regarded cultural preferences for all things white as symptomatic of psychic inferioritization. (p.103)


Mercer contends that if racism is conceived as an ideological code in which biological attributes are invested with societal values and meanings, then it is because our hair is perceived within this framework that it is burdened with a range of negative connotations. (1994)He further posits that classical ideologies established a classificatory symbolic system of color, with white and black signifiers of a fundamental polarization of human worth –‘superiority/inferiority’. Distinctions of aesthetic value ‘beautiful /ugly’ have always been central to the way racism divides the world into binary oppositions in its adjudication of human worth (p101)


The racist underpinnings of this is underlined when Ifemelu says it is only the white kind curly, loose curls or spiral curls accepted. In this case, white stands for inclusion while kinky hair means exclusion. Kinky hair is representative African hair which is considered coarse and difficult to manage just like the African persona, metaphorically. Thus the cultural pressure for black women like Ifemelu and Uju to straighten, dye or somehow make their hair look like the white woman’s hair becomes a symbol of systemic racism in American culture. For Ifemelu herself, hair represented her struggle for confidence and identity as both a Nigerian immigrant and a black woman in American. The moment she “falls in love with her natural hair” is a moment of truth for her, she regains her self-confidence and independence (p297). For the greater American society, hair begins to represent the inherent racism embedded in American culture and society. Adichie observes that hair is the perfect metaphor for race in America. It shows the small ways in which racism transcends into seemingly trivial things, like beauty in American culture. A black woman must relax her hair to not only look t professional but to meet the beauty standards.


When we first meet Ifemelu, she is traveling from Princeton to visit the black hair salon outside of town. Adichie weaves the hair salon scene in and out of the story to convey the complexities of ethno-racial relations in America as well as Africa. In order for Ifemelu to have her hair braided she has to travel by train   for miles from the plush white-owned suburbs of Princeton where she observes ‘It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton’ to Trenton which she describes:  but it would look, she was sure, like all other African hair braiding salons she had known they were in that   part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings and no white people ( Adichie 5) Mercer (1994) argues that  in any black neighborhood  you cannot escape  noticing the presence of so many barbershops and hair dressing salons; so many hair-care products and so much advertising to help them sell them all (p100)


The above statement points at a race problem where blacks, coloreds and other races perceived inferior are settled in low socio-economic conditions with cockroach infested houses, a far cry from what they used to see in television and read in magazines while at home. Graffiti, dark and dank buildings are an indicator of black residential marginalization. Ifemelu is even apprehensive of visiting the area as graffiti writings portend black criminal gangs.


Besides being confined to low socio-economical neighborhoods, immigrants are racially oppressed through   blatant rejection and being ignored like when a white American patient refuses to be treated by aunt Uju putting to question her professional credentials. While this patient was lying in the examination room waiting room for the doctor, .Aunty Uju walks into the room to carry out the examination and the patient asks if the doctor is coming and when Aunty Uju tells her that she is the doctor, ‘the patient’s face changed to fired clay’; Aunty Uju says ‘Do you know, that afternoon she called to transfer her file to another doctor’s office. (p.182.)


Ifemelu while working as a nanny is left behind in a very big bungalow, the person who manicures lawns finds her there and is shocked that it’s owned by an African. He withdraws until Ifemelu tells him otherwise. Adichie says:


She went to the door. A burly, red-faced man standing there, carrying cleaning equipment, something slung over his shoulder, something else that looked like a lawn mower propped at his feet. He stiffened when he saw her. First surprise flitted over his features, then ossified to hostility. (Adichie, 2013 p .166). The white vacuum cleaner thought Ifemelu the black girl was the owner of the home.


Adichie (2008) puts it: “Racism, the idea of the black race as inferior to the white race, and even the construction of race itself as a biological and social reality, was used by Western Europeans to justify slavery and later to justify colonialism. She explores  the Institutionalized racism experienced by Ifemelu during the school career fair where she hopes to be recruited for a job however,  the contrary happens and her explanation for this is that the recruiters upon realization that she is non-American but African ended up being noncommittal. According to her their main fear is that if they hired her they would have to “descend into the dark tunnel of immigration”. This is a clear indication that the female African immigrant is placed in a precarious situation if processing her documents is viewed as a complicated process not worth undertaking. In this case such bureaucracy systematically ensures blacks are cut off from receiving certain benefits. Besides this, through her blog Ifemelunamma tackles the delicate issue of institutionalized racism, where one of her posts reads:


…but racism is about power of a group and in America it’s the white folks who have the power. How? Well, white folks don’t get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans and mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire Somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids that they are not smart enough to be doctors ( Adichie 2013, p. 327)


From this excerpt it is clear that government organs are portrayed as totally biased in favor of whites. The judiciary and police force if headed by a black person will regard a white person as untouchable because of the power they wield. Top institutions like the banking sector are prejudiced towards blacks since they give loans and mortgages to white people only, ensuring blacks remain at the bottom of the hierarchy. Scholars often overlooked racism and the toxic nature of race relationship in the U.S when reading this novel. Olorunsiwa (2016) while commenting on the pervasive nature of racism, argues that theoretically, US-American society is built on practices of equality, fairness, and a high degree of respect for human rights. However, in practice racial discrimination is an equally salient, perhaps more pervasive reality. (p.94). By stressing the inescapable reality of racism in the U.S., Adichie reinforces the cataclysmic impacts of this condition on African diaspora communities in the U.S. like Ifemelu. Orem(2013) a literary critic, a in his essay What Does an African Woman Want in America that:  argues that Americanah arrives on the fiftieth year after Martin Luther King’s I have a dreams speech; it comes at a time when report cards on race relations in America are necessary and abundant, when minorities in America, and blacks in particular, are staring down the barrel of Barack Obama’s second and final term, interrogating the nature of change, the meaning of progress, and the abstraction of an American dreams that is so often a lived deception.(p.1)


Ochiel’s reference to Martin Luther King, a leader in the African American Civil Rights Movements, and one of King’s iconic speeches, I have a Dream (delivered to civil right supporters on August 23, 1963 in Washington DC), is not only pointing out the powerful racial and political undertones of the novel, but also a clarion call of resistance and conventional way of expressing the community’s grief and anger. (Olorunsiwa, 2016, p100)


Everyone joked about people who went abroad to clean toilets , and so Obinze approached his first job with irony; he was indeed abroad  ‘cleaning toilets’ , wearing rubber gloves and carrying a pail … each time he opened the swinging  door of the stall , it seemed to sigh. … The beautiful girl who cleaned the ladies’ toilet was Ghanaian, about his age, with the shiniest dark skin he had ever seen. (p. 236) Obinze and the Ghanaian girl are doing common jobs that back home they never got to do since they come from middle class families. Their skin color has put them at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.  This position is reserved for lowly jobs as described in another blog post that reads, “Lots of folk today don’t mind a black nanny or a black limo driver. But they sure as hell mind a black boss. This statement indicates just how much the Americans loath a black person in a position of authority.

4.5  Conclusion and Recommendations

This paper explored Africa hair as a precursor to racism in the USA. The hair texture, facial features like the shape of the nose were determinants in placing Americans in socioeconomically hierarchies otherwise known as race structures. Nigerian-born, American-based female African fictional writer Adichie bares it all out in her latest output Americanah. Adichie is an authority in matters migration having migrated herself and encountered all the historical racial prejudices first hand.


From the discussion it is clear that facial features, pigmentation and hair texture form the basis of discrimination in the West. African hair fails to meet the beauty standards and professionalism in its original state. Adichie used examples of blatant racial prejudice and rejection to foreground the theme of racism and hair. Americanah is an important text in understanding race in the West as many Americans don’t consider themselves racists, neither do they think they practice race. This article therefore recommended that more critical studies be conducted in similar fictional works written by African authors who depict immigrant experience in the West with the aim of ascertaining the realities of diversity, equality and the viability of American dream.

4.6  References

Adichie. C. N.(2008). “African ‘Authenticity’ and the Biafran Experience” . Transition 99.1 p 42-53

Adichie. C. N., (2013). Americanah. Fourth Estate .London.

Fanon. F.(1970). Black Skin, White Mask. Paladin London.

Gilroy,P.,(1993). The black Atlantic Modernity and Double  Conscious. London. New York.

Hall, S. (1977). “Pluralism, Race and class in Caribbean society,” in Race and Class in post-  Colonial society , UNESCO New York:

Massey, A.(2016). Revealing Your Delusions: Perspectives on American Values in Contemporary African Fiction . Thesis. Georgetown university. Washington DC

Mercer,K.(1994). Welcome To The Jungle . New Positions in Black Cultural Studies.


Olorunsiwa G. F.(2016). African Dreams of America: Diaspora experience in the Writing of Aidoo, Adichie and Cole. Dissertation. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.


Mildred N. Sikuku1

Ben Nyongesa2

Kibabii University

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