Americanah follows Ifemelu’s quest to forge her own, authentic identity and build a space for her voice. When Ifemelu meets Obinze in high school, she believes she’s found the love of her life. Ifemelu is used to people disliking her outspoken and even blunt nature, but it is what draws Obinze to her. Even if Ifemelu doesn’t quite believe that Obinze won’t get tired of her honesty, they build a happy, comfortable relationship together. However, political turmoil in Nigeria leads to most people their age leaving the country. The inciting incident of the novel occurs when Ifemelu decides to leave for America, with Obinze’s encouragement and the promise that they will reunite there. Obinze believes that America is the future, and the constant university strikes are keeping Ifemelu from getting her degree. They both assume America will hold a better future for them and their relationship. However, America is nothing like the movies and television shows Ifemelu sees. From the moment she lands in America, she finds herself pressured to change herself. Her accent makes people doubt her intelligence. Most pressing is her inability to find work legally under her own name on a student visa, which means she must literally pretend to be another person. At her lowest point, Ifemelu accepts a sketchy job from a tennis coach who sexually assaults her. Ashamed and horrified at what she has come to, she cuts off all contact with Obinze.

Primarily, Ifemelu’s time in America is divided between her relationships with two men, Curt and Blaine. Curt’s money and resources allow her to live in America legally under her own name. However, he is deeply insecure, which makes him impossible for Ifemelu to be truly honest with. Around the time she breaks up with Curt, Ifemelu begins writing her blog on race. For the first time, instead of her outspoken honesty being something she’s punished for, it becomes something she can use for financial gain. Her blog becomes a central feature of her relationship with Blaine, a Black American professor who also blogs. Blaine believes that Ifemelu should use her blog on race to improve the world and educate people. He is an extremely righteous person, conscious of his privileges and desiring to help other Black people. This dynamic ends with Ifemelu feeling that Blaine is either trying to change her or resents her for having certain privileges as a non-American Black person. Although they briefly find common ground in the election of Barack Obama, Ifemelu eventually realizes that her life in America may be comfortable, but it does not truly fit her.

Meanwhile, Obinze has his own journey of authenticity, which mirrors Ifemelu’s. Unable to immigrate to America because of a crackdown on immigration after 9/11, Obinze’s mother sneaks him into the UK on a research visa. Undocumented, Obinze, much like Ifemelu, must try and build an entire life on lies, including working under another man’s identification card. He attempts a green card marriage but ends up caught by immigration and deported. His time in Britain is lonely and anxious, a truly miserable experience. When he returns to Nigeria, he marries Kosi, a beautiful, bubbly woman. The life they build together is luxurious, but Obinze soon realizes he cannot talk to Kosi about anything real, and her desire is always to keep up appearances. He has not managed to build a life of authenticity and honesty on his own.

When Ifemelu and Obinze reunite in Nigeria, they instantly feel a spark, falling into old rhythms of talking and routines. In a climactic conversation, she gains the courage to tell Obinze about the tennis coach’s assault and why she cut contact with Obinze. Despite all her fears, Obinze responds with compassion and sympathy to this one thing that she was too afraid to tell him for all these years. He accepts everything about her, including her darkest moment. However, because Obinze is still married to Kosi, their relationship requires sneaking around. Ifemelu has no desire to end up like Aunty Uju, a secret shame, with a child who cannot know the truth about his father, and so she tells Obinze she will only be with him if he leaves his wife. After making this ultimatum, Ifemelu realizes that she has her friends and her new blog, a sense of newfound self-possession independent of Obinze or any man. Thus, when Obinze shows up at her house with his declaration of love, she happily accepts, and they go forward to build a life of authenticity together.