Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie released her most recent novel, Americanah, in 2013. Although I’m more than a year late reading the book, I think it’s worth writing about the issue of colorism as it appears in the story. Colorism in Americanah doesn’t rely on the standard melodramatic pity party or blame game. Instead the novel has a rather matter-of-fact tone on the issue, one that seems based more on observation than painful memories or emotion. I guess the story itself is so interesting and well-written that the discussion of colorism doesn’t seem forced—it just seems real.
The public has discussed Adichie’s writing in connection to colorism before. People complained and even started a petition when filmmakers decided to cast the very fair skinned actress Thandie Newton in the lead role of Half of a Yellow Sun (the movie version of Adichie’s novel by the same title). Protesters claimed that the casting decision was an instance of colorism because Newton does not resemble the typical Nigerian woman.
I have not found any direct statement from Adichie about her opinion on the casting for that movie or on colorism in general (if you find something let me know!). In the novel Americanah, however, it’s clear that Adichie is familiar with colorism, and she seems to understand it in both an American and a Nigerian context. (Adichie grew up in Nigeria and currently splits her time between Nigeria and the United States.)
The novel is ultimately a love story at heart, but because the two main characters each spend significant time in America or England, issues of race and colorism are frequently brought to their attention as well as the reader’s.
I said earlier that colorism in Americanah is depicted as a realistic part of the story rather than seeming forced or cheesy. Here’s an example of that.
While in school in Nigeria, the main female character Ifemelu has a close friend named Ginika. Ginika is described as “the second most popular girl” in school. She has caramel skin and wavy hair that falls “down to her neck instead of standing Afro-like.” Ginika is voted “Prettiest Girl” in school every year, but she claims it’s only because she’s “half-caste.” Because the students think Ginika is so pretty and popular, they try to match her with the handsome and popular guy Obinze. But Obinze falls for Ifemelu instead.
Adichie allows us to see colorism (people’s biases about skin color and hair texture), but she doesn’t resort to the typical girl fight between the dark skinned Ifemelu and the light skinned Ginika. Instead Adichie shows that close friendships can exist across the color spectrum. Adichie also shows that colorism doesn’t always play out when and how we think it will, because despite what other characters expected and wanted, the dark skinned friend ends up dating the popular guy. And he treats her well.
Adichie also portrays the practice of skin bleaching among some Nigerian women. In describing Ifemelu’s boss, the narrator says, “it was easy to tell that she had not been born with her light complexion, its sheen was too waxy and her knuckles were dark, as though those folds of skin had valiantly resisted her bleaching cream.”
In her American setting, Ifemelu writes a blog post titled: “Why Dark-Skinned Black Women—Both American and Non-American—Love Barack Obama.” In the post, Ifemelu explains how light skin is valued above dark skin in many contexts, but especially in America. So of course the main argument of the post is that dark skinned black women love Obama because he loves a dark skinned black woman. She says, “He knows what the world doesn’t know: that dark black women totally rock.” And in the typical humor of Ifemelu’s writing she tacks on a last sentence that says, “Oh, and dark black women are also for cleaning up Washington and getting out of Iraq and whatnot.”
I appreciate this honest, direct, and explicit statement about colorism. But even in its directness, it’s still an organic part of the story, it’s still true to character, it’s still funny, and it’s still well-written.
The novel contains several other instances similar to the ones I’ve pointed out here, but I recommend reading Americanah yourself to discover what else it has to offer on race, colorism, culture, immigration, love, and more.