Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51mSJNECGyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

I read this novel on the heels of Things Fall Apart, which is set in late nineteenth century Nigeria.  Americanah is set in both modern-day Nigeria and America, and it was interesting to read something else about Nigeria, written by a native Nigerian.

Americanah is about Ifemelu and Obinze, a young woman and man who grow up in Nigeria, meet and fall in love in high school there.  They both begin college, and Ifemelu has an opportunity to emigrate to America to finish college.  The two plan for Obinze to follow her to America in a year or two, but political turmoil in Nigeria ultimately prevents him from doing so.

Upon her arrival in America, Ifemelu is bewildered.  For the first time in her life, she must confront what it means to be black in a white nation.  She has great difficulty finding a job, and resorts to making money by sordid means to pay her rent and college tuition.  Although it is a single incident, that and her feelings of homesickness and alienation result in depression and in her cutting ties with Obinze back in Nigeria.  He is heartbroken and mystified by Ifemelu’s sudden silence, which ends up spanning many years.  Eventually, Ifemelu secures a position as a nanny to a white family and begins to find her way in this strange country.  She starts a blog the centers around her observations of what it means to be a black American from her perspective as a black non-American.

Meanwhile, Obinze tries unsuccessfully to get to America.  He spends some time in England, arranging for a sham marriage to an English citizen in order to gain citizenship for himself, but is deported back to Nigeria, where he eventually marries and begins to accumulate wealth through questionable means.  Through all of this – which spans about fifteen years – Ifemelu and Obinze are never far from each other’s thoughts.

A lot of the novel takes place in a hair salon specializing in black hair, as Ifemelu recounts her time in American and plans to return to Nigeria.  I never realized how much a part of black culture black hair is until I saw Chris Rock’s Good Hair several years back, and a lot of the hair salon scenes in this book called to mind that documentary.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It’s very well written and tells an interesting story, as well as offering a slew of observations about race and racism in America.  The only criticism I have is that there were a number of holes in the story – relationships and incidents that seemed important but suddenly evaporated without resolution.

Still, a very good book.


The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

home_book_cvrThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

by Michelle Alexander

All these years later, it is very difficult to imagine people actually owning other people – human beings being the property of other human beings.  Slavery as the institution it was in America’s history has an abstract feel to it now; we of course read about it, and see movies depicting it, and talk about it, but there is a great feeling of removal from it.  That was a very long time ago, we all think.

The Jim Crow laws of the south, too, are a part of American history that we read about and talk about in the past tense.  We like to see ourselves as a progressive, compassionate people.  And sadly, we’re kind of smug about it.

Slavery ended a long time ago.  Segregation and Jim Crow also ended a long time ago.  Therefore, we are a good society.  We put an end to the egregious mass mistreatment of an entire category of people based merely on the color of their skin.  So, we are good.  We’re certainly not racist.  Racist means blatant hostility towards non-whites.  Racist means saying the N-word.  Racist means discriminating against people of color just because they’re not white.  Right?  And we don’t do those things, so we’re not racist.

Except, not.

Because, as a society, we continue to exclude and mistreat people of color.  We continue to see them (as opposed to us) as less than.  We’re just a lot more subtle about it now.  And largely not even aware of it.  And we rationalize and justify our prejudices by telling ourselves and each other that they bring their troubles on themselves.  They deserve what they get.  Because they’re not like us – law-abiding, upwardly mobile, educated, white.

The problem with this thinking is that white people are no more law-abiding than black people, and the data bears this out.  The data also bears out that black and brown people are targeted by law enforcement far more than white people are – and it’s all under the banner of The War on Drugs.

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander carefully explains how the mass incarceration of blacks – mainly young black males – under War on Drugs really has very little to do with drugs or crime, but has almost everything to do with race and making sure that non-whites – mainly blacks and Latinos – remain largely locked out of mainstream society.  Want to talk about high crime rates in urban black communities, or unemployment among blacks, or lack of education and skills?  Then it’s time to be honest with ourselves and each other and acknowledge that hundreds of years ago white people constructed a system that would severely restrict the ability of blacks to climb to success and belonging in society, and white people continue to maintain that system – just in a different form – today.

A very provocative and important piece of work, I went through The New Jim Crow wielding my highlighter and feeling appalled.  My only criticism of this book is that I wish it were written less dryly – it would be more engaging if it read less like a textbook.  Still, every American should read this.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Absolutely-True-Story-of-a-Part-time-Indian The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie

I originally bought this book because it was mentioned somewhere as a banned book.  That always piques my interest.

This National Book Award winner is the story of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a fourteen-year old Spokane Indian living with his family on a reservation in Washington.  Born with hydrocephalus which resulted in numerous medical and physical problems, Junior is an outcast even among his own people.  He becomes even more so when he decides to leave the “rez” – at least partially – to attend an all white school in a neighboring town, where he hopes to receive a better education and more opportunities.  There, he finds himself in a strange in-between – seen as a traitor by the Indians on the rez (where he still lives with his family), and as an outcast at the all-white high school (where racism is rampant and the school mascot is – wait for it … an Indian).  Over time, however, he makes a place for himself in his new school and earns the respect and friendship of his fellow students.

I have such mixed feelings about this book.  I can definitely see the appeal it holds for teens.  The story, which includes entertaining artwork, boldly touches on masturbation, bulimia, and taking a crap at school, among many other things.  It sheds a harsh light on the poverty, alcoholism, and tragedy rampant on Indian reservations, and frankly, serves as one more example that makes me feel ashamed to be a white American.  On the other hand, I had a hard time sympathizing with Junior because he really is pretty obnoxious.  I would have hoped that his disabilities would serve to make him more compassionate, but he unapologetically ridicules other people for their looks or intelligence.  There is also a passage in the early part of the story that stung:

” … you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.

“After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.

“And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you’ve become the biggest retard in the world.

“Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day.  They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.”

I don’t know.  I’m really unsure if this was meant to convey disdain for bullies, or for “retards.”  Again, a person can be a lot of things, but the line is drawn at being “retarded.”  Nobody likes a retard, yo.


I really don’t know if Alexie means to make some social statement, or just entertain.  I do know that his stories have stirred up negative reactions among Indians, many of whom call him a sell-out.  This novel is apparently a faithfully rendered but somewhat fictionalized account of Alexie’s own upbringing on the Spokane Reservation.

Read it and decide for yourself.

Waking Up White by Debby Irving

WUWcoverFINAL-200x300 Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race
by Debby Irving

I was intrigued by the synopsis of this non-fiction book and jumped at the chance to review it for TLC Book Tours.

In recent years, I’ve found myself becoming ever more conscious of classism and the accompanying attitudes of condescension towards those not belonging to the “desirable” class.  It all hits me in a somewhat raw place because although in my adulthood I’ve joined the ranks of the upper-middle class, I always feel like something of an outsider because my roots and background are decidedly lower-middle class, and I’m very conscious of the great degree to which the class ranking most of us end up with has to do with advantages and disadvantages we are born into rather than “earn.”

“I’ve often heard people debate the entangled relationship between race and class.  ‘Which one is the real issue?’ people ask.  ‘Is it race or is it class?’  I’ve wondered myself how my socioeconomic advantage versus my skin color advantage shaped my life and skewed my worldview.  I’ve come to believe it’s not an either/or issue.  Both are real, and both matter.  Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both.  Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race.  Similarly, assuming race is the more significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.  Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship.  If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will . . . and so on.  Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the person experiencing it.

“And yet, class and race are inextricably linked.  Because class has long been easier for me to understand than race, this book focuses on the more elusive role skin color has played in my life.  In grappling with whiteness, I’ve tried as much as possible to tease out and examine the race factor.”

In Waking Up White, Debby Irving recounts her odyssey to delve into issues of race that over the course of her life impacted relationships and her worldview in ways that she wasn’t able to understand until she began to actively learn about race – including whiteness.  Having grown up in an affluent world populated almost entirely by white people, Irving grew up with the belief, like many people, that success in life depends solely on one’s own merit and determination, and the opportunities available in America are available to everyone.  One of her first wake up calls was when she discovered that her father, who had fought in WWII, was able to buy his first home and attend law school courtesy of the GI Bill, but that the vast majority of black men who fought in WWII were denied the benefits of the GI Bill, and that in the post WWII era as housing developments exploded across the nation, neighborhoods were “redlined,” preventing people of color from moving into white neighborhoods, thereby virtually guaranteeing a cycle of more affluent neighborhoods being populated by whites and poorer neighborhoods by blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white minorities.  Although the practice of “redlining” may no longer exist, the cycle certainly still continues today, with the vast majority of middle-class, upper-middle class, and affluent neighborhoods across the country being populated mostly by whites, and lower-middle class and poor neighborhoods by non-white minorities.  And then we have the audacity to make moral judgments about the people who populate each type of neighborhood.

“White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior.  Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise – class mobility.”

Irvine acknowledges that for the longest time, she believed as many of us do – that “racism” means being openly intolerant or hostile concerning those of different races.  Most of us do not believe ourselves to be racist and would be indignant at the suggestion that we might be, but the truth is that whether we buy into and/or perpetuate stereotypes, or hold some nebulous belief that “they” would be better off if they could just be more like “us,” most of us are racist in one way or another, to varying degrees.  Perhaps the most insidious form of racism is failing to recognize and acknowledge white privilege.

“My ancestors did sacrifice and work hard, and I am a diligent worker.  But no longer could I deny that my life has been borne on the wings of whiteness.  I’ve had an unfair advantage since before I was born.  Just as time has compounded disadvantages for people living on the downside of systemic racism, it has compounded the advantages I and other white people enjoy.  My life is built on family members able to get citizenship status without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low-rate loans, good education, and solid health care.  Each generation has set up the starting point for the next, perpetuating the illusion that white people are more successful, not beneficiaries of an inequitable system.”

“Discrimination and privilege are the flip sides of the same coin.  What must make it so infuriating for people of color is the double whammy that white folks, unaware of their skin color advantage, pose: To really get racism, a white person must get both pieces.  It’s not enough to feel empathy towards people on the downside; white people must also see themselves on the upside to understand that discrimination results from privilege.  You can’t have one without the other .  Like a seesaw, the upside and downside are joined together.”

There are really so many quotes I could pull from this book; I was dog-earing pages and highlighting passages from beginning to end.  Extremely well-written, thought-provoking, and eye-opening, I want all of my white friends to read it.  I want my kids to read it at some point.  I think it’s a book that needs to be read, and a conversation that needs to be had, by every American.

To read more about Debby Irving and race, check out her website: