After writing the title to this essay it finally dawned on me how many papers I have written on the subject of the American Dream. It also occurred to me that every time this topic comes up I re-ask myself every time: what is the American Dream anyway? Is it the small business start-up owner gone wall street; now owning a mansion, a yacht, a garage full of sports cars, and a maid that cleans your house a couple times a week? Or is it the farmer who started with nothing but the family homestead and now operates one of the largest producing farms in America? I have come to conclude that it’s both.
What both of the scenarios I have just described to you have in common is a growth, mostly economic at face value, but there has to be something driving that economic growth right? some sort of character, moral, or personal ambition. I think that is exactly what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attempts to reflect in her novel, Americanah. This novel is the story of the American Dream from the perspective of the least likely of places: Nigeria.
The character, Ifemelu in Americanah presents the story with a very unique African narrative of aspiration. Instead of the typical tale of anti-assimilation to western culture and campaigning for reparations for the damages of colonialism, Ifemelu is concerned about the future of native country of Nigeria. Following her education in the United States and her return back to Nigeria, Ifemelu has seen and lived the climax of the first world. She has lived a lifestyle that so many of her countrymen aspire to live in their own country, and because of this she is torn between her identity. She is torn between her third-world roots and her first-world knowledge.
But deep down Ifemelu knows what her country has to aspire to, even if the first world side of her has already lived the climax of that aspiration. Ifemelu says, “But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past. Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder.”
I choose to use this quote specifically because I believe it speaks miles to what the overall message of the novel is. We see from this quote what Ifemelu truly identifies herself as: a Nigerian. With that, we see that Ifemelu views America’s best days as in the past. That America’s climax has come and gone, but Nigeria has yet to experience the problems that face the first world.
Now, it may be not be “politically correct” but when I read the last part of this excerpt regarding “have[ing] to make a fetish of the past.” and “to drink milk from the cow’s udder” the word hipster kept popping into my head over and over again. And not just and image, but the cliché image of a guy in a coffee shop surrounded by people on laptops while he hacks away on a typewriter. To me, this is the epitome of what Adichie is attempting to say in this quote. The first world has lived its glory days, and now has to revert back to the buildup of the way things were to feel that sense of invention and ingenuity; perhaps to “rough-it” so-to-speak. This, all the while Nigeria has yet to feel what it is like to achieve an economic climax where wearing ripped jeans and faded flannel shirts can be considered fashionable and “pop”.
Now personally I have always sided with the late radio news and commenter Paul Harvey in the America’s greatest days are ahead of us. And truthfully I still believe that; perhaps right now America is just taking a bit of a relapse. But regardless of what America’s pop culture or status might be at any given time one thing about the United States stays steady: The idea of a better tomorrow, to live no two days the same, to ensure that the next generation’s future was better than yours. These, I believe are the ideals Ifemelu believes in, and untimely why Adichie herself came to America to start with.
Maybe Americanah isn’t a dualistic or hybrid story after all, but rather a story of unity between one dream and two countries; The American Dream.