I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that I felt like I was reading a foreign language. Some of Adichie’s characters speak Igbo. (Obi ocha, “clean heart,” is a terrific way to describe Barack Obama.) Some of the foreign feeling certainly came from my unknowing of Nigeria: I’ve only heard “Naija” from Awesomely Luvvie, and I just started following her on facebook a few months ago. Some of the foreign feeling also came from how little I know of the difference between what Ifemelu calls “American Blacks” (AB) and “Non-American Blacks” (NAB). It had never occurred to me that a person from Nigeria might not experience race as we use it in the United States until she arrived in the US. Ifem writes a blog post called “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby.” The post begins: “When you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now.”
I know nothing of this. Of course I’ve only ever thought of black and white in the way we think of them in the United States. It was a revelation when I learned recently that our historical “one-drop rule,” which is stupid and is rooted in white supremacy, is the opposite in some other countries. There are places where if you have a drop of white blood, then you are white. In the United States, if your skin is brown and your hair is kinky, then you are considered and treated as though you are Black, period. White is the default; everything else is other. That a Nigerian would experience blackness in this way for the first time when she set foot on American soil, and that returning to Nigeria would make race largely irrelevant to her life again, was a new idea for me.
So that was a lot of the foreignness, and I’m glad to have been exposed to it. Obviously I have a lot to learn. The other foreignness that really struck me, though, shouldn’t be so foreign at all, because it has nothing to do with nationality. It is hair.
I’ve seen Black people’s hair all my life. I’ve registered in some sort of abstract disconnected way that there are different ways to have Black hair, and some of them look puffy and some of them look tight-curly-kinky and some look like there are really bright colors in there somehow and some of them are straight. I knew there were social politics involved with the question of natural vs. relaxed. I knew white people shouldn’t be wearing locs* and I know not to touch someone else’s hair (which, by the way, should not be news to grown people; that’s a rule in preschool). That’s about it. As I’ve started following Black people on social media in the last year or two I’ve started seeing hair-related references I didn’t understand. It’s all seemed mysterious to me, in that way that makeup seemed mysterious for decades because the adult women I knew in my little hippie town didn’t fuss with it. The fuck is concealer for? How do you do it? I worked out concealer in my twenties, but of Black hair, especially Black women’s hair, I know nearly nothing.
Ifemelu gets her hair braided in this book. The narration jumps around in time, returning over and over to the braiding salon in New Jersey staffed by African women. This passage begins on page 14:
“Finally, Aisha finished with the customer and asked what color Ifemelu wanted for her hair attachments.
‘Not good color,’ Aisha said promptly.
‘That’s what I use.’
‘It look dirty. You don’t want color one?’
‘Color one is too black, it looks fake,’ Ifemelu said, loosening her headwrap. ‘Sometimes I use color two but color four is closest to my natural color.’
Aisha shrugged, a haughty shrug, as though it were not her problem if her customer had did not have good taste. She reached into a cupboard, brought out two packets of attachments, checked to make sure they were both the same color.
She touched Ifemelu’s hair. ‘Why you don’t have relaxer?’
‘I like my hair the way God made it.’
‘But how you comb it? Hard to comb,’ Aisha said.
Ifemelu had brought her own comb. She gently combed her hair, dense, soft, and tightly coiled, until it framed her head like a halo. ‘It’s not hard to comb if you moisturize it correctly,’ she said, slipping into the coaxing tone of the proselytizer that she used whenever she was trying to convince other black women about the merits of wearing their hair natural.”
I read some of Americanah on an airplane sitting behind a Black woman, and finished it on another flight beside another Black woman. I tried not to be a weirdo white lookie-loo staring at their hair. I’m fascinated, though. How can I have lived thirty years in this country and know nothing about Black hair? Why did I not know about attachment colors? Why had I never heard of microbraids? Why did I have no idea there are braiding salons? Why did I have to google sisterlocks? It is ridiculous, how little I know.
*Originally I had written “dreadlocks” here. I have been corrected. Here is one article about the terms. I’ll be on the lookout for more perspectives.