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The African Lady (Redux)

By Anita Franklin

When Ta-Nehisi Coates was trying to make sense of the world as a young student, his first working theory "held all black people as kings in exile, a nation of original men severed from our original names and our majestic Nubian culture." With help from teachers at Howard, Coates thought his way out of compensatory history:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there even among us.

Coates's movement of mind sent your editor back to the following post by Anita Franklin, which originally appeared here in 2013. B.D.

It’s 1973, I am 15 years old and yearning to live in Flatbush. It’s a better neighborhood than where I am and I think to myself I bet the landlords there make sure that the boiler works in the winter. I earn $40 a month for sweeping and mopping the floors and stairs of the 5 story walk up once a week. It is a typical poor, polyglot group of people of color in my building and in English, Spanish and patois we try to be organized. You see the winters are bitchin’ and one family I know has sickle cell anemia. The winter cold is bitter on sickle cell. As a group of tenants we agree to take a stand and put our rent into escrow. Not just on behalf of the family living with sickle cell but because as a group we know we are entitled to heat and hot water.

My absolute crush at the time was the beautiful tall elegant African Lady who lived on the 4th Floor. She was always wrapped in heavy fabric with rich colors and stylized patterns that might be ancient symbols. She didn’t wear jeans or suits, only dresses that draped and tied and fitted her form perfectly. In the winter, she didn’t wear a coat but a long wool cape. I liked the way she took up space when she moved. She wore bold jewelry and high hair that was more a work of art than a political statement. Every time I saw her on the stairs I could see in her careful coiffure where our corn rows had come from, our box plaits, twists and even that very old time country style of wrapping braids in yarn had begun. I thought there was kinship here, an authenticity and grandeur that I could emulate.

Because I was a young person with energy and ideals I was asked by the tenants to approach the African Lady to join us. I could never catch her in, not even when I knew she was there in her apartment, would she answer the door for me. But when the white landlord came to her door just before Thanksgiving, she opened it and because I was sweeping and mopping the stairs on the landing below I heard their conversation when her voice rose and let out my nightmare. “You can’t talk to me like that. I am not one of these ex-slaves you are used to bullying about. I am a Nigerian!!” And our landlord said back to her. “I don’t care what kind of nigger you call yourself you pay your rent and you pay it on time.”

I felt bad for the African Lady but I also recognized that I too had been wounded in that encounter on the 4th floor.

Fast forward and it’s April 11th 2013 in the North of England and I have rushed into Sheffield with my friends to catch up with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has decided to open the tour of her new novel Americanah here in Yorkshire. I have known, studied and indeed lived in Africa for a time so I am not the same girl desperate for approval that I once was. Still I recognize in the regal gait and elaborate grooming of Chimamanda something of the African Lady I loved as a girl.

This is a long awaited and much anticipated third novel. But unlike Purple Hibiscus and Half a Yellow Sun, this novel is not set in Nigeria and does not really add to outsiders’ knowledge of that part of the world. The continent, the family and parents of the protagonist, Ifemelu, are more like mountains off in the distance from the narrative. Perhaps because of this, there is a yearning in Americanah, a grinding homesickness and displacement which is offset only by the fact that her heroine has the option to return home.

Ifemelu is a fabulous character. She is coping with America – at least certain parts of it, and looking to understand the differences between a place like Princeton and a place like Trenton. She is trying to understand why she has to leave Princeton in order to get her hair done in a natural style. And she is also trying to help other people new to the country understand the ways of America’s complex and bewildering culture(s). The novel too is complex, multi-layered, multi-storied. One British critic called it “exhausting.” There is an attempt to get to grips with American obsessions about race and to compare the American experience with the British. But that’s like trying to mix oil and water. There’s a lot of furious shaking but beyond a certain level the comparisons she wants to make between the UK and the US around “race” simply do not work.

Americanah is Adichie’s sweet but often barbed commentary on the US. The title while sounding like Americana, is, in the mouth of anyone from West Africa, a rebuke, a denunciation. Of course there are many tones to accompany the insult. Gently mocking. Howling with derision. Among friends – a light reminder not to be so pompous.

Some readers in the US will choose to take the novel as a poke in the eye. Others will recognize the book as affectionate too. It is not an angry work, as she said in Sheffield. “You have not yet seen me do angry. I can do angry very well and this is not it.”

And it is not chiefly or, better, solely, about race. Adichie herself claims that it is about love. Particularly self-love. Subtly provocative and written with supreme deftness, Americanah helps us understand that identity is always partial and contingent and yes, exhausting. Certainly, Adichie shows us that to be African and then to endure the process of becoming Black is a massive journey, not just a plane ride.

I come out of the theatre into the cold and my mind harks back to the African Lady and the incident on the 4th Floor of that dilapidated building in Crown Heights. We got a new boiler in the end before Christmas in 1973 and much later I became a trade unionist, community worker and, after moving to the UK, what would be regarded in the US as an Associate Professor in the social sciences.

After so many years I know what it is to live in another country and my heart reaches out to Ifemelu and others like her. I have always wondered what happened to the African Lady. It was said that she sneaked out of the building late one night. No one really knew what happened. For myself always, I like to think that somehow or another she made it home.

From August, 2015

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