On the Politics of Hair

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hairIn a light and powerful tone Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie guides the reader throughout pages of a capturing romance that is at the same time a window into the ‘games’ of race, migration, gender and (in)equality in contemporary world.

Americanah is more than just another novel. As the author creates several layers of depth and meaning the reader enlarges her/his understanding of complex realities that are too often subject of academic discourses or either a matter of the third sector players.

The subject of hair, and specifically black women’s hair, is a storyline strongly linked to the politics of identity, discrimination and power. As Ifemelu, the main female character is advised to smooth her hair before attending a job interview, as otherwise she might not get the job, Chimamanda draws attention to the fact that appearance and specifically hair looking is still a reason for discrimination and judgments on people’s capacities and values.

In an attitude that is clearly a way to build an oppositional culture Ifemelu decides at a certain point in the story to assume her hair and changes her smooth hair to an Afro hairstyle. The subject of hair is, to a lower extent, also relevant to other, whiter, contexts. Indeed also smooth hair is differently valued in western cultures, where women with smooth hair are assumed to be more efficient and professional.

I find fascinating, yet not surprising, the symbolism associated to something so ‘random’ as hair. Despite its randomness in terms of its relation to real value and capacities, if looked at through the lenses of race hair assumes a new meaning linked to keeping power imbalances and inequality.

Through her story Chimamanda develops a counter-narrative that dismantles hidden (or not so hidden) meanings, creating an empowering narrative that tells a human story made of human characters (and not stereotyping characters). By highlighting the subject of hair (and other) she creates different representations of diversity in a world that tends to always ‘say/do more of the same’, contributing therefore to raise an alternative voice to join the trendy monotone choir of mainstream media and society.

Americanah is undoubtedly a book to read.

Note: This subject is further addressed in a talk between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith available in this link.

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