“Hair” as a Symbol in Adichie’s Americanah

“Black hair and the black body generally have long been a site of political contest in American history and in the American imagination” (Zina, paragraph 3). Conforming to the Western standards of beauty, the style of black hair has been a controversial issue for both African-Americans and American-Africans for the past decades. The way Africans style their hair might be both an individual expression and embodiment of social constructs (Mercer, 4). Historically, black hairstyles are known to be movements towards self-love and reclamation of identity from the white beauty norms (Rhodes, paragraph 6). Relentlessly ignored by the white culture, the beauty standard of the blacks has never been the natural form of the blacks. In this essay, using Adichie’s novel, “Americanah”, the use of “hair” would be discussed in details following by the transformation of Ifemelu, the protagonist, and the hair salon. In her novel, Adichie has demonstrated how to knot political and personal issues together using hair as a signifier. With the help of hair as an entry point to address more serious and deep-rooted social issues in America and Africa, Adichie successfully examines the struggles and conflicts of Africans immigrants in America.

Throughout the story, hair has been a significant subject to symbolize independence and confidence. The symbolism of hair could be traced back to the time when her mother “chopped off all her hair” (Adichie, 49) for her new religion. The act of cutting her hair follows by the burning of Catholic objects suggests her mother is abandoning her old identity and trying to establish a new one. She believes it is “vain” to relax her hair and God would dictate it as a sinful act (Adichie, 50). Contributing to Ifemelu’s change, her mother subconsciously induces a sense of identity formed by her hair.

To Ifemelu, the complexity of hair represents her struggle for identity and confidence as a black American and a Nigerian immigrant. When she first reaches America, she refuses to believe she has to relax her hair instead of braiding it, to look professional. This concept is constantly reminded by her aunt, Aunty Uju, who thinks she has to “take my braids out for my interviews and relax my hair” (Adichie, 146) after passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Living in a country which is “not your own” (Adichie, 146), Aunty Uju is convinced you have to “do what you have to do if you want to succeed” (Adichie, 146). Ifemelu believes Aunty Uju “deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place” (Adichie, 147), which she does not understand the rationale behind such mindset. She remains to be a free spirit who refuses to relinquish her natural African hair. Compare to the time when Aunty Uju is still with the General and the people at the hair salon couldn’t stop complimenting her and her hair, “they hovered and groveled, curtseying deeply as they greeted her, overpraising her handbag and shoes” (Adichie, 93), the change in Aunty Uju’s view on hair parallels to the change in her identity. Wanting to fit in, wanting to be a part of the “amazing” Americans, she relaxes her hair so that she could forget her past. Later on, she comments “he really likes you” when Ifemelu is with Curt, “even with your hair like that” (Adichie, 269). Internalising the beauty standard of the Whites, Aunty Uju no longer understands Ifemelu and her identity crisis, just like she does not understand her son, “I think he wrote that because that is the kind of thing they teach them here. Everybody is conflicted, identity this, identity that” (Adichie, 269). To her, being in America is a privilege, and having a Caucasian boyfriend is a trophy to her family, something to brag about.

Ifemelu, on the other hand, uses her hair to identify with her home country, Nigeria. When she cuts her hair in order to pursue a job, she feels like a part of her is gone. The burning of her hair when she is trying to conform and relax her hair suggests the loss of confidence and independence, “something organic dying which should not have died” (Adichie, 251). That part of herself has gone along with her own natural hair. Her career counselor Ruth suggests she should “lose the braids and straighten your hair” (Adichie, 250) and Ifemelu admits she used to laugh at the idea but now “she knew enough not to laugh” (Adichie, 250). After being in America for a while, she understands the mindset of Aunty Uju, she realizes in order to support herself and her family, she has to conform. She is pressurized to agree with the very narrow Western beauty standard in order to get a job. She struggles to maintain her old values and identity but at the same time have an American accent and relaxed hair so that Americans would treat her seriously. The boxes of boxes of relaxers sold in the drug store suggest the collective need for Africans to blend in. Notably, here are not a lot of salons for African in Princeton but boxes of relaxers for them. The advertisement stresses on the “gentleness” of the product by using words like “botanical and aloe” (Adichie, 250), This ironically contradicts the burning of her hair as there is nothing gentle about “needles of stinging pain shot up from different parts of her scalp” (Adichie, 251). The hairdresser’s comment regarding the “white-girl swing” (Adichie, 251) after relaxing her hair again shows the importance of Caucasians’ beauty standard. Mercer (5) has mentioned that the act of hair straightening “suggested resemblance to white people’s hair”, and black identity is available, only, for white consumption (Rhodes, paragraph 6). “Her hair was hanging down rather than standing up, straight and sleek… the verve was gone” (Adichie, 251) suggests a sense of dullness and melancholy after the transformation. She “did not recognize herself” (Adichie, 251) after restyling her hair and she hates losing her original hair, “she left the salon almost mournfully” (Adichie, 251).

Compare to the reaction of having her hair straightened when she is younger, “excited by the prospect of straight, swingy hair” (Adichie, 252); she starts to associate her hair as part of her African identity. Changes no longer “excites” her but terrifies her. Straightening her hair in Nigeria is more about aesthetics, but changing hairstyle in America is about race and identity. She is forced to embrace the “whiteness” of American so that she can be accepted. She is confused with the new concept, race, after being immigrated to America, since “black” in Nigeria is nothing but a color. She begins to wonder if she has braid her hair during the interview, would she be taken seriously and be given the job (Adichie, 252). Straightening her hair not longer symbolizes the loss of identity but a signifier of upward mobility. It is hard for Africans to be considered in the American professional class without changing their outward appearance; and most of the Africans accept this phenomenon without classifying this act as a form of racism. The way she mocks about her full hair is only suitable to be “a backup singer in a jazz band” (Adichie, 252) suggests she has unknowingly internalized the society’s racism. Comparing to her pride in being an African when she first arrives America, her confidence and boldness are shaken.

The act of cutting her hair symbolizes a sense of freedom, as “relaxing your hair is like being in prison… caged in” (Adichie, 257). Wambui’s metaphor explains the “hair issue” as “liberty” versus “imprisonment”. Referring to the previous paragraphs, if relaxing her hair suggests the loss of independence and blending in with the whites, cutting her hair should be regaining her confidence and identity. However, as soon as Ifemelu really cuts her hair, she feels ugly, “I look so ugly I’m scared of myself” (Adichie, 258). She wishes to change, to anything but the current hairstyle, applying all sorts of chemicals to wait for “a miracle to happen” (Adichie, 258). But using unnatural solution to an unnatural problem is only making her hair worse. She is not comfortable in both identities, with or without her natural hair. A sense of insecurity arises, she couldn’t go to work that she has to call in sick (Adichie, 259). Also, when checking Curt’s e-mail, Ifemelu couldn’t stop but notice her “long hair flowing behind her. A woman who liked her hair and thought Curt would too” (Adichie, 260). She is comparing her own “short” and “ugly” hair to Curt’s fling and ex-girlfriends, “all your girlfriends had long flowing hair” (Adichie, 261). She begins to wonder if she is not good enough for Curt and she would never be able to be a part of Curt’s privileged world.

Falling in love with her natural hair would be a sense of self-love and regaining confidence. After reading Happilykinkynappy.com, which focuses on the idea of “coily, kinky, nappy, woolly hair was normal” (Adichie, 263) and teaches people how to feel good about their original Afro hair, she “looked in the mirror… fell in love with her hair” (Adichie, 264). The powerfulness of the website is not about selling natural hair products, but empowering African women to learn how to embrace their own identities, with confidence. This group of women contributes significantly to Ifemelu’s epiphany. Feeling a sense of belonging, the website not only nourished her hair but her soul (Network Fiction, paragraph 21). Most of the Americans do not understand Africans’ hair. The issue of hair is brought up again later in Ifemelu’s flashback with Curt when the salon refuses to do wax her eyebrows because they believe Africans’ hair is different and they would not know how to handle. The lack of knowledge of Americans towards Africans reinforces the fact that there is no place for Black people in America. This is one of the moments when Ifemelu realizes she and Curt could never be together since they live in very different worlds.

Talking about people’s misunderstanding towards true meaning of African hair, Adichie uses different commentaries of Americans towards Ifemelu’s hair to show embedded racism indeed exists in America, even though you might not be aware of it. One of the examples would be Ifemelu’s workplace judges her insecurity after she cut her hair. They believe her hair means something “political” (Adichie, 262) or it means she becomes a lesbian (Adichie, 262). Until the day she resigned, people couldn’t shake off the importance of the cutting hair “movement,” “you think your hair was part of the problem?” (Adichie, 262). To the Americans, natural African hair is something intriguing and new. When Ifemelu is in a grocery store with Blaine, an old woman wants to touch Ifemelu’s hair, “your hair is so beautiful, can I touch it?” (Adichie, 388). This incident also suggests a sense of insensitivity regarding how Americans act around people in different races. They are not “guinea pigs” (Adichie, 388) for them to play around, and just because they are slightly different from you, it does not make them different human beings or make you more superior. Funny how we never thought of touching the blondes’ or brunettes’ hair to feel its texture, but the blacks are constantly being asked due to “racialized fascination” (Rhodes, paragraph 10). There is a difference between acknowledging the racial differences between the whites and blacks and positioning them in their relative racial status. In Ifemelu’s blog, “A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor”, she restates the absurd idea of leaving the hair unattended directly means unprofessionalism, unsophistication and “just not damn normal” (Adichie, 367). She acknowledges if Michelle Obama does not relax her hair, Obama will lose his campaign because the world does not tolerate natural African hair. Africans have been straightening their hair for decades, but still, there is no way their hair could look like Caucasians’. Straight black hair symbolizes attractiveness and valuable commodities, and seemingly all other races’ hair is acceptable except for Africans, correlating to how Africans are treated historically.

Of course, we cannot blame the Caucasians solely for treating African women differently, since African men themselves also disregard the natural African hair. When Ifemelu is walking with Curt, a Black man wonders the reason Curt would like to be with a woman “looking all jungle like that” (Adichie, 263). African men also agree natural African hair is less attractive and less civilized by using the word “jungle”. Pay attention that hair is only a “thing” for her after she moves to The United States, similar to the idea of race, you never notice it until you are not surrounded by your own kind. By connecting “hair” to her own identity, Ifemelu, unconsciously identify herself by her race. In Africa, everyone has “natural” hair, and people never regard the kinkiness as a problem.

Moving on to the next part of the essay, the hair salon would be one of the most iconic spots in the book. With the story opens with Ifemelu going to a hair salon in Trenton to have her hair braided, the use of hair is set to be a metaphor throughout the novel. She begins to accept the lack of braiding shop in Princeton, “it was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton” (Adichie, 3) since there are only a few black locals near the neighborhood. However, she still questions the American society for making no place for Black’s independence or beauty, as she wonders “why there was no place where she could braid her hair” (Adichie, 4). The blacks have to abide by the White’s standard of beauty and to change their original hairstyle, especially in Princeton, where there is no place for kinky, naturally black hair,  but only smooth, blonde hair.

The women working in the salon are mostly Africans struggling in America. They believe they are categorized as second-class citizens and hence are jealous of people who stayed in America for a longer period. The conversation between Aisha and Ifemelu shows that Aisha has “immune to the cosmetic niceties of American customer service”(Adichie, 15) and hence does not understand Ifemelu’s persistence in keeping her hair natural, “colour four is closest to my natural colour” (Adichie, 14) and “I like my hair the way God made it.” (Adichie, 15). This conversation suggests the change of Ifemelu since she used to be one of the African women who yearn to be part of the American society. She is no longer the little girl who would straighten her hair for a job interview and call sick because she feels insecure. One of the signature features that differentiate between fresh immigrants and people who have stayed for a longer period is the accent. Being brought up later in the book, Halima is jealous of an African customer because she has an American accent. She believes by completely forgoing the African accent; his classmates would no longer bully her son, “they beat, beat, beat him” (Adichie, 230). This again shows the lack of acceptance of different cultures in America. Halima mentions that he is beaten by “black boys” (Adichie, 230), which surprisingly should be one of their own kind. Among the black community, different class and social status exist, distinguished by the amount of time you spend in America.

Kelsey, a Caucasian customer, symbolizes the embedded ideology regarding white superiority and black inferiority in liberal and young white female. Disguised by open-mindedness, they believe by acknowledging or doing what the black people do, they are anti-racism. They appreciate black culture but do not understand any of it. For Kelsey’s case, the book she thought is about Africa is actually about Europe (Adichie, 233), Ifemelu stresses on the differences between the blacks and the whites has led to different interpretation of the same book, “And I see why you would read it like you did,” (Adichie, 234). They also asked insensible questions like “But you couldn’t even have this business back in your country, right? Isn’t it wonderful that you get to come to the U.S. and now your kids can have a better life?” (Adichie, 232) and “Are women allowed to vote in your country?” (Adichie, 232). They treat Africa as one of the backward countries which lacks freedom and human rights. They “expected you to be silent and grateful” (Adichie, 233)  just because you are allowed to stay in America. By diminishing the blacks, a sense of superiority is shown over the black community. The lack of knowledge is also shown when Kelsey believes African-American all have such full hair instead of attachments “Oh my God. So that’s how it’s done” (Adichie, 234). Comparing to African women, Kelsey changing her hairstyle in order to make a statement, whereas African women straighten their hair in order to avoid making a statement (Network Fiction, paragraph 10). Adichie explains the statement is “imposed” on her if she does not straighten her hair. People would think that she is an “angry black woman” or “soulful”, or an “artist”, or “vegetarian” (Ewejobi, paragraph 14).

Hair has always been a subject for mainstream literature to convey specific visual images, but in Americanah, Adichie brings hair to another level. Hair is no longer merely a feature of a group of people; it becomes something political, an identity and a social problem. Appropriate hairstyles for Africans should be determined by the Blacks instead of the Whites. We have been taught not to judge a book by its cover for ages, but it is our own society that isolates and judges people who look different from us. Such abhorrent and wrong perception and prejudice towards different race should not go unaddressed and unchanged.  As long as this kind of unbalance racial positioning continue to exist, there is no way we can solve inequality within a society. Respect and recognize the heterogeneous nature of the Blacks would be the first step to acquiring a more harmonizing and friendly community.

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