Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Authenticity
The characters in Americanah suffer when forced to deny their true selves and emotions, but find joy in the authentic, positing that honesty is the key to a happy life. Even unpleasant truths become worse when not told, as when Aunty Uju’s refusal to tell Dike about The General leads Dike to assume that he was unloved by his father. The falsehoods involved in immigration, from affecting an accent to using false identification, cause emotional strain, and lead to feelings of inferiority and invisibility. Ifemelu delights in a piece of junk mail addressed to her because it has her name on it, and is proof that she exists even as she attempts to find jobs as someone else. Above all, we see this appreciation and desire for honesty in Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship. Obinze’s love of Ifemelu’s bluntness causes her to find value in herself just as she is, and she chases this feeling of rightness and ease throughout the novel. Obinze recognizes the strain his divorce causes both Kosi and Buchi, but explicitly says that he doesn’t want Buchi to grow up in a lie, emphasizing again that embracing uncomfortable truths—not hiding them—is the key to long-term happiness.
Race and Racism
Ifemelu quickly discovers that in America, white Americans treat her as a black American, despite the fact that she’s from Africa. Throughout the novel, this confusing conflation of blackness creates tension for Adichie’s characters. Characters like Aunty Uju attempt to distance themselves from black Americans because, as Ifemelu notes, black Americans have the least amount of privilege in the American racial hierarchy. This distancing fails because white Americans in the novel do not differentiate by culture, and Aunty Uju faces discrimination. Ifemelu notices that white Americans pit all black people against each other despite their extremely different histories, such as when Laura speaks of her Ugandan classmate who didn’t get along with the black American woman in her class. Furthermore, the singular category of “black” leads black Americans in Americanah to assume that black non-Americans have an intrinsic understanding of their struggles. For example, Ifemelu disappoints Blaine for not caring as deeply as he does about the discrimination against Mr. White. While she can notice the horrific treatment of black Americans, this treatment will never be personal to Ifemelu. She feels that the American categorization of race flattens disparate peoples, conflating groups that don’t necessarily understand each other.