Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in America, gets her hair braided at an African salon. She interacts with the women there and remembers her past. Meanwhile Obinze, a rich man living in Nigeria, emails Ifemelu and remembers his own past. The chapters are also scattered with posts from Ifemelu’s blog about race in America.
Ifemelu grows up in Lagos, Nigeria. She is close with her Aunty Uju, who becomes the mistress of The General, a wealthy married man. Ifemelu meets Obinze at school and they fall in love. Obinze introduces Ifemelu to his mother, a professor. Aunty Uju gets pregnant and has The General’s baby, named Dike. The General dies and Uju flees with Dike to America.
Ifemelu and Obinze go to university together. They start having sex and Ifemelu has a pregnancy scare. There are many strikes and the university is shut down. Ifemelu considers going to America, and she gets a visa and a scholarship to a university in Philadelphia.
When Ifemelu arrives she stays in Brooklyn for the summer with Aunty Uju and Dike. Uju seems stressed out and unhappy. She gives Ifemelu a fake identity card to find work, and Ifemelu goes to Philadelphia for school. Ginika, her friend from Nigeria, helps introduce Ifemelu to American culture and its racial politics. Ifemelu can’t find a job, and she starts using an American accent. She makes friends with some African students.
Ifemelu’s money runs out, and she accepts a job helping a tennis coach “relax.” He touches her sexually and gives her $100. Ifemelu goes home and feels guilty and depressed. She breaks off contact with Obinze, and stops eating and sleeping. Ginika finds her a job babysitting for a wealthy woman named Kimberly.
Kimberly and Ifemelu become friends. Ifemelu visits Aunty Uju who has gotten married and moved to Massachusetts, and flirts with a young man named Blaine on the trip there. Ifemelu starts dating Kimberly’s cousin Curt, a rich, handsome white man. Curt takes Ifemelu on many trips and helps her get a good job and a green card.
Meanwhile Obinze is hurt by Ifemelu’s sudden silence. He graduates and moves to England. He stays with friends but can’t find a good job, and his visa expires. He rents an identity card and finds menial work. He makes friends with a boss and coworker, but then is turned in as an illegal immigrant. Obinze borrows money from Emenike, an old friend who has gotten rich in England, and pays for a green-card marriage with a girl named Cleotilde. On the day of his wedding, though, Obinze is arrested and sent back to Nigeria.
Ifemelu, feeling the pressure of her interracial relationship, cheats on Curt and he breaks up with her. She gets depressed again. Her parents visit. Ifemelu starts her race blog and it gets very popular. She becomes well-known and is asked to give talks. She meets Blaine again and they start dating. He is a professor at Yale and very principled. Ifemelu also meets his domineering sister Shan.
Ifemelu and Blaine start following Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. They have a fight when Ifemelu skips a protest Blaine arranges. They get back together, but are mostly united by their shared passion for Obama. Ifemelu wins a fellowship to live at Princeton. After a while she grows restless and decides to quit her blog, break up with Blaine, and move back to Nigeria.
It is a week before she plans to return to Nigeria when Ifemelu goes to the hair salon. As she leaves the hair salon, Aunty Uju calls to tell her that Dike tried to kill himself. Ifemelu rushes to be with him.
Obinze has gotten rich selling real estate. He is married to the beautiful Kosi and has a daughter.
Ifemelu spends lots of time with Dike and then goes to Lagos. Her old friend Ranyinudo helps her readjust, teasing her about being an “Americanah.” Ifemelu goes to a club for Nigerians back from living abroad. She starts working for a women’s magazine but then quits and starts a new blog about life in Lagos. Dike visits her.
Ifemelu finally calls Obinze and they meet up. They start seeing each other daily and rekindle their romance. They spend blissful weeks together, but then break up again in the face of his marriage. Obinze tries to divorce Kosi, but she won’t accept it. After seven months Obinze shows up at Ifemelu’s door, saying he is leaving Kosi and wants to try again with Ifemelu. She invites him in.
Ifemelu – The novel’s main protagonist, an intelligent, stubborn, outspoken Nigerian woman who moves to America to attend university. She has difficulty adjusting there but eventually becomes a citizen, wins a fellowship at Princeton, and starts a popular blog about race. She has periods of deep depression at times and often feels like an outsider. She has three serious boyfriends: Obinze, Curt, and Blaine. She eventually moves back to Nigeria, reconnects with Obinze, and builds a life for herself there.
Obinze Maduewesi – The other protagonist, a calm, thoughtful, intelligent young Nigerian man. He is raised by his mother, a professor, and is very well-read and obsessed with America. He moves to England after graduating university and tries to become a citizen, but is ultimately deported. He then becomes rich selling real estate in Nigeria. He marries Kosi and has a child, but never falls out of love with Ifemelu, whom he dated as a teenager.
Aunty Uju – Ifemelu’s aunt, an intelligent, strong-willed doctor. In Nigeria she becomes the mistress of The General and lives off of his wealth, but then she has to flee to America, where she lives a life of stress and hardship. She is always the closest to Ifemelu of any of her relatives, even after she seems to change and harden in America.
Dike – The child of Aunty Uju and The General, a precocious and innocent boy who grows up to be a funny, popular teenager. His outgoing personality hides depression and a crisis of identity, however, as Dike once attempts suicide.
Ifemelu’s Mother – A super-religious woman who uses her faith to try to hide from the corrupt realities of the world. She loves Ifemelu but doesn’t understand her very well.
Ifemelu’s Father – An intelligent, verbose man who always wanted to go to graduate school but had to work instead. He uses big words and humors his wife’s extremism without joining in.
Obinze’s Mother – A professor at the University of Nigeria, she is intelligent and plainspoken, feeling no shame about discussing sex or injustice. Ifemelu comes to admire and love her, as she respects and cares about Ifemelu.
Ginika – Ifemelu’s sweet, quiet friend who was first set up with Obinze before he pursues Ifemulu. Ginika moves to America and then helps Ifemelu adjust there, finding her the job with Kimberly.
Blaine – An African-American professor at Yale who is very principled and high-minded. Ifemelu dates him for a long time, and they share a passion for Barack Obama.
Curt – Kimberly’s cousin, a rich, handsome white man who falls in love with Ifemelu and dates her for a long time. Curt is very optimistic and spontaneous, and everything always seems to fall into place for him.
Kosi – Obinze’s wife, an exceptionally beautiful women who is very traditionally-minded and domestic. She is a good wife but has little in common with Obinze.
Buchi – Obinze’s young daughter with Kosi, whom he loves dearly.
Kimberly – Ifemelu’s first boss and friend in America, a wealthy, liberal white woman who is charitable and friendly but very privileged.
Ranyinudo – Ifemelu’s friend from school who stays in Nigeria. She helps Ifemelu adjust to moving back to Lagos.
Aisha – The African hairdresser braiding Ifemelu’s hair. She wants to marry an Igbo who has U.S. papers in order to get American citizenship.
Shan – Blaine’s beautiful and intelligent but domineering sister. She seems to have a special power over people, but uses it selfishly.
Chief – A Nigerian “big man” who helps Obinze get rich.
Nneoma – Obinze’s cousin who lets him stay with her after he is deported, and introduces him to Chief.
The General – A wealthy, powerful man in the Nigerian government who takes Aunty Uju as his mistress and then supports her. He is the father of Dike. He dies in a plane crash that is rumored to be an assassination.
Sister Ibinabo – A sanctimonious, domineering woman at Ifemelu’s mother’s church.
Kayode – The most popular guy in the secondary school, Obinze’s friend.
Emenike – A boy who is very ambitious and lies about being rich. He is friends with Obinze but then goes to England, gets wealthy, and becomes pretentious and patronizing.
Odein – A young man Ifemelu is attracted to at university in Nsukka.
Mariama – The owner of the salon where Ifemelu gets her hair braided.
Halima – The other woman braiding hair at Mariama’s salon.
Marlon & Jane – A couple from Grenada whom Ifemelu befriends in Brooklyn until Marlon propositions her.
Bartholomew – A rude Nigerian man whom Aunty Uju dates and marries in America, before ultimately leaving him.
Elena – Ifemelu’s white roommate who has a dog and dislikes Ifemelu.
Cristina Tomas – A white girl at the American university who is patronizing to Ifemelu because of her accent.
Wambui – Ifemelu’s friend in the African Students Association. She encourages Ifemelu to embrace her natural hair.
Mwombeki – An outgoing Tanzanian student in the African Students Association.
The Tennis Coach – A white man who posts online about a job helping him “relax.” He touches Ifemelu sexually and then gives her $100.
Laura – Kimberly’s unfriendly sister.
Don – Kimberly’s narcissistic husband, whom she adores.
Taylor – Kimberly’s son, an innocent and playful boy.
Morgan – Kimberly’s daughter, who is withdrawn, intelligent, and judgmental, though she seems to like and respect Ifemulu.
Kelsey – A white girl who comes into Mariama’s salon to get her hair braided.
Abe – A white man Ifemelu has a crush on, but he doesn’t see her as female or romantically viable.
Curt’s Mother – A chilly, wealthy woman who seems to disapprove of Ifemelu.
Barack Obama – A black politician who is elected president. Ifemelu becomes a passionate supporter of his candidacy.
Michelle Obama – Barack’s wife, a black woman whom Ifemelu greatly admires.
The Angolans – Two seemingly identical men who take care of the business behind Obinze’s green-card marriage.
Cleotilde – The young woman Obinze is supposed to marry to gain citizenship in England.
Nicholas – Obinze’s cousin who lives in England. He used to be wild in Nigeria but the responsibilities of parenthood and the stress of life as an immigrant in England have made him very responsible.
Ojiugo – Nicholas’s wife, who also used to be wild in college.
Nosa – Obinze’s friend who works in the subway in England.
Iloba – Obinze’s distant (and technically unrelated) cousin who lives in England and helps Obinze find work.
Vincent Obi – The Nigerian man who lets Obinze use his National Insurance card for a fee, but later turns him in.
Roy Snell – Obinze’s kind and welcoming boss at his warehouse job.
Nigel – A young Englishman who works with Obinze and later becomes his “General Manager” and moves to Nigeria.
Georgina – Emenike’s English wife, a lawyer.
Amarinta – Blaine’s best friend.
Paula – Blaine’s white ex, an activist and academic.
Boubacar – A Senegalese professor at Yale whom Ifemelu befriends.
Mr. White – An old security guard at Yale who is racially profiled.
Jonathon and Isioma – Two of Kosi’s wealthy friends.
Don – Ranyinudo’s rich married boyfriend.
Aunty Onenu – Ifemelu’s boss at Zoe.
Priye – Ifemelu’s friend from school who becomes a wedding planner.
Zemaye – Ifemelu’s coworker at Zoe, a very sexual woman.
Doris – Ifemelu’s other coworker at Zoe, who lived in New York.
Esther – The super-religious receptionist at Zoe.
Fred – A pretentious man from the Nigerpolitan Club whom Ifemelu sleeps with.
Edusco – A friendly businessman Obinze haggles with in Abuja.
Okwudiba – Obinze’s good friend in Nigeria, another wealthy but honest man.
Race and Racism
While Americanah is a tale of individual characters, it is also a sweeping analysis and critique of race and racism in America, England, and Nigeria, and the novel is peppered with Adichie’s biting observations on the subject. In Nigeria, Ifemelu doesn’t really think of herself as black. There is still a racial hierarchy in Nigerian culture, however, as light-skinned or mixed-race people are considered more attractive, and people use products to make their skin lighter. But when Ifemelu and Obinze go to America and England respectively, they find that racism is a much more pervasive part of life. Ifemelu first truly discovers race—and starts to consider herself black—only when she is forced to adapt to America’s complex racial politics. Adichie gives many examples of racist incidents, like Obinze being mocked for scraping his knee because he’s a “knee-grow,” people assuming the white Curt couldn’t be dating Ifemelu, or patients refusing to have Aunty Uju as their doctor. Ifemelu then starts a blog about race, and Adichie scatters blog posts throughout the novel. Through these posts Adichie is able to be most outwardly critical of racism in America: Ifemelu describes many microaggressions, incidents, and assumptions she has experienced that many whites wouldn’t always notice or understand, and she is able to do so bluntly and humorously. Many of these posts (as well as Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine) involve navigating the differing experiences of African-Americans and “American-Africans,” or Africans who come to live in America and experience racial prejudice for the first time.
Most of the novel’s discussion of race involves pointing out racism and humanizing it (both the victims and the perpetrators), but Adichie also gives some examples of people overcoming racism through close friendship and romantic love. Characters like Curt, Kimberly, and Nigel achieve this to varying degrees of success in their relationships with Ifemelu and Obinze. As Shan complains about in describing her own book, most editors don’t want a novel that focuses on race—the issue must somehow be made more “complex” or described so beautifully that the reader doesn’t even notice it. With this Adichie comments on her own work, declaring that race and racism are big and complicated enough issues on their own, and they deserve a novel as sprawling and complex as Americanah.
Identity is an important theme in the novel, as the plot follows Ifemelu and Obinze growing up and finding their place in the world. Because of their life situations, identity as a person is inextricably linked to racial and national identity for both these main characters. When they are teenagers Ifemelu is already smart and outspoken, and Obinze is calm and thoughtful, and as they grow up these qualities are then affected by outside cultural forces. In America, Ifemelu must struggle with her identity as an American-African, or someone seen as an outsider. First she deals with this by taking on an American accent and straightening her hair—seemingly giving in to a new identity as an American. She even has to use a fake identity to look for work, as she only has a student visa. Later Ifemelu gains confidence and comes to embrace her Nigerianness, even as she adapts more easily to American culture and finds success there. She gives up her American accent and lets her hair grow naturally, while at the same time dating a rich white man and later winning a fellowship to Princeton. This blend of cultural identities seems healthy and natural for Ifemelu, but it then means that she inhabits a kind of in-between place, where she is neither wholly American nor (when she returns home) wholly Nigerian: she is an “Americanah.”
Obinze has a more difficult experience adapting to a new cultural identity in England. His visa expires and he is forced to take on other people’s identities to find work, and to buy into a green-card marriage. Everywhere there is a fear of immigrants, and Obinze feels invisible and worthless. He is finally caught and deported back to Nigeria and then sets about building a new identity for himself, having been forced to give up his old dream of America. The new Obinze makes lots of money, marries a beautiful but uninteresting woman, and becomes a Nigerian “big man.” He is seen as a huge success by his peers, but it all feels slightly false to Obinze until Ifemelu returns. Ifemelu, having her own identity crisis in returning to Nigeria and feeling out of place, then reconnects with Obinze and the two begin to work toward reconciling the differing identities they have constructed in their separation. Apart from these two, many secondary characters also relate to this theme, like Emenike, who totally changes his personality to become a cultured and wealthy British citizen. Overall the situations and characterizations of the novel show the many forces working upon the creation of someone’s identity: cultural, racial, and economic ones, as well as personal will and preference.
The central plot tying Americanah together is the romantic relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. They have a kind of idealized teenage love as they find each other in school and become incredibly close, but they are then separated when Ifemelu goes to America. Ifemelu cuts off contact with Obinze during her period of depression, and this silence goes on for years. During this time each character has their own romantic experiences: Ifemelu dates Curt and Blaine, while Obinze marries Kosi. Even while Obinze and Ifemelu are separated, their romantic lives remain the central plot focus, particularly as Ifemelu deals with racial and cultural issues in her romantic relationships. With this Adichie not only creates tension and an interesting plot, but also delivers social commentary through an individual and emotional lens.
Apart from this central relationship, Adichie examines other kinds of romantic relationships as well, like Kimberly’s idolization of her narcissistic husband Don, Aunty Uju becoming the devoted mistress of The General, and many of the women of Lagos dating and marrying for money alone. Most of the novel’s romantic relationships are portrayed as somehow unhealthy or lacking, and the contrast to this is the kind of pure, romantic love and connection between Ifemelu and Obinze. The novel ends without them reaching any definite conclusion, but it does at least end on a hopeful note, implying that Ifemelu and Obinze’s love might be able to rise above the world of materialistic, one-sided, or unhealthy relationships.
Separation vs. Connection
A more metaphorical theme that spans the novel is the idea of separation versus connection. This involves personal misunderstandings, physical distances, and cultural and racial divides. The most obvious separation that defines the plot is when Ifemelu and Obinze are physically separated by thousands of miles, with Ifemelu going to America and Obinze staying in Nigeria and then going to England. This then leads to the personal separation between the two when Ifemelu breaks off contact with Obinze. The later parts of the novel are then about reestablishing that close connection between the two, as they reconnect geographically by both returning to Nigeria.
Other personal separations concern the other characters as well, like Ifemelu’s mother’s disconnection from the corrupt realities of life, Aunty Uju’s disconnection from Dike’s experiences, and Obinze’s personal distance from Kosi. Among all these personal and physical separations, there are also the many cultural and racial divides focused on in the themes of race and identity. Ifemelu’s experience and blog focus on the many misunderstandings and prejudices that fill her life in both America and Nigeria. But just as Ifemelu’s relationships with Obinze and Dike are shown as hopeful portrayals of real connection, so there are also examples of human connection crossing racial and cultural divides, as with Ifemelu’s friendship with Kimberly and her relationship with Curt, the diverse characters at Shan’s “salon,” and Obinze’s friendship with Nigel.
As with the themes of racism and identity, Americanah allows Adichie to observe and critique the cultures of Nigeria, America, and England through scenes that are sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic. In Nigeria (particularly Lagos), Adichie focuses on the culture of corruption and materialism, where most people get rich through fraud or corruption, officials expect bribes, and women date or marry a man based on his wealth and prestige. Everyone is expected to grovel before the rich, who are expected to ostentatiously show off their wealth by visiting Western countries and sending their children to Western schools. This leads to a Nigeria where essentials are lacking for most of the population (there is rarely consistent light or water), and Western culture and whiteness are idealized over Nigerian culture.
In America, Adichie focuses mostly on the racial hierarchy and prejudices Ifemelu discovers there, but she also comments on the prevalence of depression and anxiety in American society. She especially focuses on liberal white Americans, who like to criticize their own country but still imagine it as superior to others, the one dispensing charity instead of needing it. Adichie spends less time on England/Europe, and much of that involves racism, but she also highlights the fear of immigrants—a fear that ignores England’s own colonial past, as the people from the countries England itself created eventually make their way to England. Along with all these serious criticisms, the novel also contains many lighthearted observations about the different cultures, like ways of speaking or dressing. Americanah is a large and complex enough book that it can encompass individual stories of romance and personal growth, searing critiques of racism, and many astute observations about the cultures of Nigeria, England, and America all at once.