How Adichie Hooked Me At the Hair Salon

I always hated going to the hair salon. As a little kid, going to the salon meant driving 45 minutes to someone’s trailer that was renovated to look like a salon, staying there all day, and stopping by Dairy Queen on the way home because I’d been deprived of food for several hours. Still, the trips were bearable as long as I went with my mom.

When I got older, my mom stopped feeling the need to ensure we would both get our hair done at the same time. I realized that my mom had shielded me from salon life with her presence. I suddenly had to fend for myself- I had to tell the stylist how I wanted my hair, when my scalp was burning, but worst of all, insert myself into conversations. When you’re just the tagalong, you’re not required to say anything. But when you’re on your own, you’re suddenly expected to involve yourself into salon life.

I never, ever had anything more to say than, “Hello, how are you, how are your children?” 

The other little girls always stared at me with my two books (in case I finished one before my hair was done).

The stylists always cooed at me for having such good grades but never actually spoke to me, merely shouting across the salon about their customer’s blessing. 

I was jokingly shamed when I started high school for always wanting my hair flat ironed. My stylist said, as she finished my hair one day, “There. Now you look like all your white friends.”

It was a joke but I remember thinking that I had never mentioned having white friends. Or mentioned friends at all. Or even having given any person details of my life.

From then on, I spoke sparingly, kept my nose in my books, knowing that I would be talked about when I left- the customer who was uppity. 

Then, one day, the book that I took into the salon with me started with a black girl feeling uncomfortable in a hair salon, too. Not necessarily for the exact same reasons as me, but similar enough for me to, finally, feel relaxed, because for once, someone had said the things I had always thought.

Somehow, quickly, I was sucked into this world the book had presented for me. So different was this world that the main character, Ifemelu, lived in from me, but so very, very similar. The constant feeling of being an insider, but yet, still an outsider to race, was something I had identified with my whole life. I am African-American but I never really fit. My family knew it and joked about it but by doing so, whatever rift there was between me and my identity, they helped affirm that it was there.

So it was beautiful to see Ifemelu tackle some of the same questions I had about race, about being Black in America, from the insider-but-outsider perspective. She speaks so plaintively about experiences that every Black woman can identify, from being questioned about a relationship with someone outside of her own race, to having anxieties about how her hair will be perceived in the work force.

Finally, someone said, Black people can have depression, too. And I felt, with painful clarity, the words used to describe Ifemelu’s sadness, how the weeks slid by, how the things you meant to do often slid along right with the missing weeks, how suddenly you are so alone, in the core of my chest. Somebody said it. Yes, she may have dismissed it, believing at first that only Americans, not Africans, have depression, but it doesn’t take away the fact that anyone who has been depressed, will see their reflection in the less than a page long description of falling into the void of emptiness.

I cried several times while reading the book because someone finally said it. Each time I read something I could relate to in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I read about Ifemelu’s confusion about the distinction between the Black Student Union and the African Student Union in college, and laughed. As a former chair of a committee on my University’s Black Student Alliance, I recalled my mild confusion at the number of first-generation Africans chairing committees in the Alliance and then wondering if we had just as many slave-descent Blacks in the African Student Union. 

I did not find answers in Americanah, but I did not need answers, I needed confirmation that I was not the only one who saw things and internally muttered, “What?” I learned so much as I leafed through the pages about Non-American Blacks, as Ifemelu calls her African and West Indian counterparts. Never before had I thought much about Black people not all being connected by a common history, but in truth, we don’t all share a common history. I had to make myself understand Nigerian people, Igbo people, because similar though we might be in terms of skin pigment, the lives they lead are just so different from my own. 

I have a friend at university who is Egyptian. She told my mother that she is African-American, because though her family, ancestry, and even she all belong to Egypt, she lives in America now and thus is African-American. She told me how confused she is about having to check caucasian for most documents. 

I have another friend, a white friend, who makes every effort to try and see things from my perspective. If she doesn’t understand, she tries to get me to explain why I would be offended by such a thing. Her desire to know and comprehend race from a different light, makes me confront my own notions about race and if I truly understand where my feelings are coming from. 

Americanah deals with race in a way that would be helpful to both of them. I think my Egyptian friend would delight in hearing about similar feelings of being an insider-but-outsider. I think my white friend would simply be interested in discovering what race is from someone else for a change. Still, the best thing, is that beyond race, there are elements in this novel that everyone can relate to. Some struggles of humanity are universal- depression, love, desire to belong, poverty, being forced to compromise your values, politics, money.

I told my Egyptian friend that if Americanah were a meal, it would be something fairly straight forward. I suggested a meal of lamb and couscous. But this is no ordinary meal of lamb and couscous. The lamb has been smoked for several different depths of flavor. It has been left to slow cook all day, absorbing at least a dozen flavors. The couscous is doused in wine sauce, deep, rich, earthy, and smooth. The lamb is so tender that it falls off the bone. You eat it slowly, every mouthful as powerful as the last, and when you are finished at last, you feel the fullness in your heart, because not only has your stomach been served, but your soul. It is the most pleasing sort of satisfaction.

But the best part of the meal is the delicious smell of the spices leave for a day or two, lingering happily, so that when you inhale deeply, you are warmed by their presence.

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