Summary: Chapter 13

Ifemelu applies for jobs with no success and blames herself. She has little money for groceries and cannot pay for school. When she receives junk mail, she actually feels happy because her name on the address makes her feel seen.

Summary: Chapter 14

After Cristina Tomas, the receptionist at the registrar’s office, speaks to Ifemelu as if she doesn’t know English, Ifemelu practices an American accent. Obinze suggests she read American books. Ifemelu reads James Baldwin, whose work teaches her about what she calls “America’s tribalisms”: race, ideology, and religion. She adopts American speech patterns and habits.

When discussing the film Roots in class, a Kenyan student, Wambui, asks why the n-word was censored and argues that censoring it erases history. The Black American students in the class disagree. One Black student expresses her anger at Wambui by mentioning that Africans sold the ancestors of Black Americans into slavery. Wambui invites Ifemelu to a meeting of the African Students Association (ASA). At the ASA meeting, students mock the questions Americans ask them, while also mocking Africa themselves. They distinguish between American African students, who either immigrate to America young or have immigrant parents, and African American students, who are Black Americans.

Aunty Uju moves to Massachusetts to marry Bartholomew. Ifemelu is shocked.

Summary: Chapter 15

Ifemelu interviews with a tennis coach to be his personal assistant. He tells her that there are two positions, one for an office role and one for a relaxation role, and that the office position has been filled. Uncomfortable, Ifemelu asks if she can think about it.

Ginika’s colleague Kimberly needs a babysitter. She would even pay Ifemelu under the table so she wouldn’t have to use a fake name. Ifemelu interviews with Kimberly and Kimberly’s sister, Laura. Kimberly compliments Ifemelu’s name, adding that foreign cultures have wonderful names. Ifemelu realizes that Kimberly believes only people of color have cultures. The house is decorated with art from minority cultures. Kimberly shows Ifemelu a photograph of the family visiting India, commenting how happy even the poorest people were. Kimberly’s husband, Don, returns home early. Ifemelu notices that Kimberly becomes docile around him. Ifemelu doesn’t get the job.

Ifemelu is a week late on rent. She calls the tennis coach in desperation. She tells him she won’t have sex. He promises that he just needs her to let him touch her. Afterward, Ifemelu feels ashamed and blames herself. At home, she finds she has a phone message from Obinze. She cannot bring herself to respond, and deletes both his messages and his emails. She grows listless, skips her classes, and stops calling her parents and Aunty Uju.

Ginika gets in touch with Ifemelu through one of her roommates. She is very worried about Ifemelu but has good news. The babysitter Kimberly hired left, and Kimberly wants to hire Ifemelu. The next day, Ginika drags her to Kimberly’s house.

Ginika tells Ifemelu she has depression, but Ifemelu does not believe her because depression is for Americans.

Summary: Chapter 16

Ifemelu tells herself she will reply to Obinze in a month, but when the time comes, she still feels unable. She stops reading Nigerian news because it reminds her of Obinze.

Ifemelu babysits Kimberly’s children. Kimberly’s daughter Morgan behaves for Ifemelu, which is surprising because Morgan’s surliness drives Don to distraction. One day, Laura tells Ifemelu that she intends to switch from her daughter’s doctor to a Nigerian doctor after reading that Nigerians are the most educated immigrant group. She compares the Nigerian doctor to a Ugandan woman she knew in graduate school, adding that the Ugandan was not like Black Americans. Ifemelu suggests that when Black Americans still couldn’t vote, the Ugandan’s father could attend Oxford. Laura is offended, and Ifemelu apologizes.

At a party Kimberly and Don throw, guests eagerly regale Ifemelu with stories of the charity work they do in Africa. Their constant talk of charity makes Ifemelu wish she could be amongst the givers instead of the assumed receivers.

Dike asks Aunty Uju why he doesn’t have his father’s last name and wonders if his father loved him. Aunty Uju refuses to tell him the truth. The move to Massachusetts has been difficult for Dike. Aunty Uju disciplines him often, threatening to send him back to Nigeria if he misbehaves. Dike is the only Black student in his class, and the teacher accuses him of aggression. When Aunty Uju suggests that Dike’s bad behavior stands out because of the color of his kin, the principal insists they do not see race.

Analysis: Chapters 13–16

These chapters further explore the complex relationship between Black Americans and Black non-Americans and how the assumed connection between them leads to conflict. Wambui’s question about the n-word leads to extra hostility from her Black American classmates. The Black American student expresses her anger by bringing up a historical betrayal—African complicity in the slave trade—because Wambui’s position feels like a betrayal to her. The Black American students, who likely expect to have to explain the n-word to white students, now must explain how painful it is to someone they read as Black, and therefore as an ally. The American expectation that these two different groups have something in common also appears in Laura’s anecdote about her Ugandan friend. Her praise of the Ugandan woman depends on insulting Black Americans, and her sharing of this story implies that she wants Ifemelu to sign off on her racism. Ifemelu’s response, while snarky, points out an important truth. Black Africans and Black Americans have different histories that have offered them different opportunities.

Kimberly and Don’s sympathy for and fetishization of foreign poverty create an ego-boosting narrative in which they are white saviors. They display artwork from minority cultures in their home, reflecting Kimberly’s belief that people of color possess rich heritages, but in doing so, they attempt to make themselves look worldly by using those rich heritages as a positive reflection of themselves. This unintentionally fetishizing behavior continues at the party when the guests attempt to ingratiate themselves to Ifemelu by talking about the charity work they do in Africa. Not only do they speak of Africa as a singular place with one culture, but their way of connecting with Ifemelu is to promise they are working to help Africa, and therefore Ifemelu herself. This narrative sets Africa up as a damsel in distress that requires the money of generous Americans to save it from its problems. This dynamic is eerily similar to the one between Aunty Uju and The General. Just as The General loved the feeling of Aunty Uju needing money from him, these Americans take pleasure in giving charitably to Africa. Their generosity is not strictly about giving, but about how giving makes them feel better about themselves.

Ifemelu’s shame that leads her to cut herself off from Obinze stems partially from a belief that she cannot achieve success in America without debasing herself. Her desperation for money has already forced her to assume another woman’s legal identity, meaning that she cannot possibly live in America as her honest self. Ifemelu understood that the coach had nefarious intentions, but when she arrives she realizes the extent to which her desperation for money and precarious immigration status has compromised her personal safety. The only job she has found that will pay her involves exploitation and assault. In addition to feeling like she betrayed Obinze as his girlfriend, this harsh reality contradicts with Obinze’s naïve insistence that America is a land of the “future,” of opportunity and success. Her sense of personal failure explains why reading Nigerian news reminds her of Obinze. Obinze, and everyone else who loves her in Nigeria, expect success from Ifemelu in this land of opportunity, and Ifemelu is not able to fulfill their narrative.

Dike finds himself caught between the two identities mentioned at the ASA student meeting: American African and African American. Aunty Uju associates Nigeria with punishment by threatening to send Dike there if he misbehaves and by scolding him in Igbo. Such negativity tells Dike that being Nigerian is not something to embrace or be proud of, but rather something scary and shameful. On the other hand, because the American construct of race does not distinguish between Black Americans and Black non-Americans, Dike faces terrible racial discrimination at school based on the bigoted stereotypes of Black Americans as aggressive and unintelligent. Not only does he take on the burden of stereotypes he does not understand, but because Aunty Uju does not associate with Black Americans, Dike does not have an adult in his life who can help him understand what is happening and deconstruct the damaging messages for him. As a result, Dike only receives negative messages about who he is at a vulnerable age. In this light, we can read his question about his father as a search for something positive on which to build his identity.