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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Learning To Be Black In The USA + My Own Personal Tales…

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Learning To Be Black In The USA + My Own Personal Tales...

Editor’s note: As 2014 begins, I’ll be reposting some of our highlight published last year (2013). Those who’ve already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you’d like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here’s a piece I originally published in June. Happy New Year to you all! 

There’s a running joke amongst black people who weren’t born and raised in America, but who, at some point in their lives, moved to America, that goes something like this: I didn’t know I was black until I came to the USA.

Those aren’t the exact words (they escape me at the moment), but I think you can understand the point. In a nutshell, commentary on/criticism of this social construct known as race.

It’s kind of a messy thing, isn’t it?

I enjoyed this 40-minute NPR interview with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, discussing her new novel, Americanah, and thought I’d share it.

In it, she discusses being a Nigerian in the USA, and the adjustments she had to make when she first came to the States as a 19-year-old, to attend college. She shares some humorous stories, that I, as someone who was also born in Nigeria, but who moved to the USA at a much younger age than she did (I wasn’t quite a teenager yet), found myself nodding in recognition of – stories on her early struggles to adapt, and come to terms with this thing called race, and *blackness*, as it’s defined in this country. 

Essentially, learning what you, as a black person in America (no matter where you’re from), should think and feel, and how you should react or not react to stimuli, as if we’re a monolith. We live in a world were conformity rules over individuality, so there’s constant pressure to fit in – and maybe even more specifically, fit into the group that you’ve been assigned by the larger body politic, if only because of the color of your skin.

It all can get very touchy I think, when we start highlighting our differences, even as black people, all over the world. From what I’ve observed, on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s sometimes a sense that one wants to feel superior over the other, or looks down at the other. No one wants to be at the bottom of global society’s hierarchy, I suppose. 

But, inevitably, we’re all African, right?

As Chimamanda does, I could tell many stories as well, for example, recalling the way white Americans treated me in high school and college, as an African in America (as opposed to an African American), believing that they were paying me a compliment by telling me things like: “you’re not like the others.” 

I remember being perplexed back then, not really understanding what exactly they meant when they said things like that, asking them who these “others” were that they were referring to. 

I was young; I’d been in this country for a year or two, working very hard at just trying to fit in – especially with the black American students at my majority white (I’d say 99% white) Catholic high school in Columbus, OH. But I didn’t quite fit in anywhere with my thick non-American accent, the awkward and uncertain way I carried myself, in this good ol’ midwestern, strictly conservative, Christian, Republican town. I couldn’t dance, I wasn’t much of an athlete (at least initially – I would go on to play a year of football, was on the track and basketball teams, before graduating), etc. In short, I wasn’t all those things that I was expected to be as a black kid in high school in America, and, in a weird way, I was looked down upon for that reason, and my *blackness* (if you will), was questioned – interestingly, not only by the white American kids, but the black Americans challenge me as well on that front.

It was truly all very perplexing to my pubescent mind.

Eventually I would come to understand it all as I aged and lived, of course. During those early years, I spent a lot of time alone, and when you do that, you are kind of forced to come to terms with yourself. You think about things a lot, and try to work them all out in your own head.

But, man, those were some of the roughest years of my entire life, and I couldn’t wait to leave and go off to college. All I can do now is look back at those years fondly. If anything, they made me tougher in every way.

What’s even funnier, is that, as an adult, years later, after living in the USA for many years, when around Nigerian or Cameroonian relatives or friends, whether here in the USA, or in Africa, my *African-ness* (if you will) is sometimes challenged. “You’ve become too Americanized,” they say – mostly in jest, but still, at times, irksome.

It’s as if I can’t win either way. Funny, isn’t it?

But all one can do is grin and bear it. After all, the only thing that really matters is that I know who I am, and I’m ok with who that person is.

Like I said, I could tell all kinds of stories about my early experiences as a *new* African in America, in the early 1990s. But instead, I’ll just hand the mic over to Chimamanda to wax philosophic, since she does it all a lot better.

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She wants a White man. She will be rich and lonely. Or she will get her MONEY taken by a trashy white dude.

The thing is: Africans KNOW poverty and they are Classist. Africans voice changes when they get around Whites. I feel sorry for Africans in america. They don't belong anywhere.

It's a darn shame they do not know it is White people that is keeping their countries BROKE/IMPOVERISHED/BUSTED AND DISEASED.



@melissaenafrique: since when is Kerry Washington carribbean ?


That running joke is the truth to some extent. I considered myself widely read, culturally aware. I grew up in multicultural Nairobi- Kenya, went to a multicultural schools, my best friends are from cultures outside Africa. I'd traveled extensively outside the continent, before I ended up settling in a country I had visited many times before UK- (Liverpool) for my college years. I did not know I was black till then.


Jay, by your comment I'm assuming you're Afro American?
What you don't understand is for the majority of blacks who immigrate here, we are use to being the majority in our respective countries. While there's pockets of other races here and there, we are use to being the ones in control. Our neighbours, teachers, doctors, preachers, presidents/prime ministers have all been primarily black, so we aren't hung up on race as Canada/America/u.k. Is. So I'm simpler terms, the author always knew he/she was black but like most black immigrants, didn't know how much being black actually mattered in this society.


It's funny how I've always felt the same way as the author and can definitely relate to kadie. I came to Canada barely a teenager back in the mid nineties from a caribbean island. While I always knew I was part of the black race I wasn't aware of my blackness and what it meant to be a black person in Canada. I felt left out and struggled to fit in with the other Canadian born blacks and whites alike. They didn't understand why I preferred cricket and soccer to basketball or football. They didn't understand why I preferred soca and sometimes reggae to hiphop. Blacks in western countries are held to a certain standard and they expect all other blacks to come and just automatically fall in line.


If someone "didn't know they were black" until they came to the US then they also didn't know what planet they were on either.
No cure for stupid.


"But, inevitably, we're all African, right?" <<<This right chea! My father is Jamaican and my mother is African-American from Mississippi that emigrated to Chicago during the last years of the great migration but I understand my race is African and my culture is African-American and Jamaican. I keep trying to tell people that African is a race, but they ain't trying to hear it. Many African-American think it's a monolithic culture, but it's not. I'm only 21, but I'm glad that I'm an avid reader or I would have the same misinformed view.

My book club on goodreads is getting ready to read her new book next month and I already have it on hold at the library and it's ready to get picked up. I can't wait.

P.S. I also grew up in a white town and was the only black girl in my class. Though I never really had any problems, I did too feel bad that I didn't live up to my white schoolmates ideals of what it means to be black (i.e. knowing how to dance and knowing popular hip-hop and r&b music.) I tried to be more "black" but I just couldn't. I remember spending hours watching BET trying to be more "black" but I just gave up and turned to MTV and continued to read teen vogue and classic children's literature like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. By that time, I was homeschooled and no one ever discouraged me from liking what I liked. Thank God for my mother having the sense to homeschool me than send me to the failing Chicago public school or I wouldn't have turned out to be a very different person because of peer pressure.


Thank you for writing this. I previously listened to Adiche's interview and always enjoy hearing perspectives from Africans who come to the US, partly because the experiences are so different from my own and also because of the surprising similarities.
I actually just posted on my own blog about my experiences growing up white in America and not being able to come terms with my race until I moved to Africa (first Zambia, and later Nigeria). If you're interested, it's at


When I lived in the Caribbean (where I was born and raised) I was aware of my colour, and my African ancestry, but as echoed by many Black immigrants, I did not become Black (as it is understood in a North American context until I moved here. I struggled in the beginning to cling on to the only identity I had known, a Grenadian/West-Indian or African descent OR an Afro-Caribbean woman. It is not that I was trying to claim some superiority over other Black people, nor was it a denial of my roots, but I am not that quick to claim the "I am African" label. First of all, I don't even know what it means to be African, culturally speaking. I see many similarities in our culture but that's all, there's no sense of belonging.

Also in recent times I have recognized that I don't relate to many of the Black experiences here, in North America, Canada to be exact. I come from a small island, where everyone knew everyone and there was a strong sense of community. I was raised by a village.

Funnily I would add that not only did I become Black when I moved here, I also grew more Grenadian/West Indian. It's very easy to get lost in this metropolis, so I cling on to what I know.


I read "Half of a Yellow Sun" and it is one of the best books ever written, and she is a very good-looking woman. Can't wait to read her second novel.


Thanks for sharing this! She is a fascinating writer – I'm about 1/3rd of the way through the book – and I plan to read more from her. It is interesting how this theme keeps coming up but I"m glad that this conversation is taking place. Maybe one day, we won't need it……


Great article all around. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Now imagine if your ancestors were freed slaves who went back to Africa established a country and then because of a civil war you find yourself back in the belly of the beast. It's certainly as if you can't win either way.


This woman is fine and there should be more pictures of her on this website. That is all.


Thanks for sharing, Tambay!

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