Summary: Chapter 17

Ifemelu moves into her own apartment. After a telemarketer compliments Ifemelu for sounding American, she resolves to drop her American accent. She wonders why she thinks sounding American is a triumph.

Ifemelu meets Blaine, a Black American college professor, on the train to visit Aunty Uju. They flirt and exchange phone numbers. Ifemelu calls him when she gets off the train, but he never responds.

Aunty Uju complains about being Black in a very white city. Her patients assume she isn’t a doctor, and one even asked to switch to another doctor. Bartholomew is never home. Aunty Uju won’t leave him because she wants another child. Dike has grown reserved. He tells Ifemelu that a camp counselor gave the other children sunscreen and said he didn’t need any. He tells Ifemelu he wants to be “regular.”

The chapter ends with a blog post Ifemelu later writes detailing the four tribalisms of America: class, ideology, region, and race. She explains that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) are always on top of the racial hierarchy, and Black people are always at the bottom. Everyone else’s position fluctuates.

Summary: Chapter 18

Back in the salon, the braiders ask a South African customer why she has no accent. She explains she’s been in America for a long time. Aisha asks Ifemelu why she has an accent, but Ifemelu ignores her. She worries she’s made a mistake in going back to Nigeria.

A white woman named Kelsey arrives and asks if they can braid her hair. Kelsey makes assumptions about the shop owner’s gratitude for American opportunities and asks if women can vote in her country. Kelsey disparages Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart for not teaching her the reality of modern Africa, and instead praises a book called A Bend in the River for being an honest book about Africa. Ifemelu objects that A Bend in the River is more about longing for Europe than it is about Africa, which makes Kelsey uncomfortable. Kelsey is surprised to learn African braiding involves hair extensions.

Ifemelu thinks of Curt, her first American boyfriend. Curt is Kimberly’s cousin who lives in Baltimore. He tells everyone he fell in love with Ifemelu at first laugh, but Ifemelu did not want to date a white man. Ifemelu did not actually notice his interest at first. When Curt asks Ifemelu on a date, she is in awe by how smitten he is with her. After they kiss, he says they have to tell Kimberly that they’re dating. Ifemelu is surprised that this means they’re dating, but agrees. He tells her that she is the first Black woman he has ever dated. She never tells him about Obinze because she doesn’t want to call him her ex. Curt is upbeat and optimistic in a way that seems distinctly American to Ifemelu.

Summary: Chapter 19

Ifemelu meets Curt’s mother, who informs her that even though their family is Republican, they supported civil rights. Ifemelu believes that she tolerates her son bringing home women of different ethnicities but assumes he will marry a white woman.

Dating Curt gives Ifemelu the money to live comfortably, boosting her grades and health. Curt asks her to leave her babysitting job, but she refuses. She does not tell her parents about Curt. As she approaches graduation, Ifemelu realizes that being a communications major with a foreign passport will make finding a job difficult. Curt gets her an interview for a public relations position at a Baltimore company that will help her get a green card. Ifemelu is grateful but deeply aware that her ASA friends struggle to find work with their student visas.

Before the interview, Ifemelu relaxes her hair because braids are not considered a professional style. The relaxer burns her scalp. Horrified, Curt argues that he likes her hair braided better. The company decides Ifemelu would be a great fit. She wonders if they would have thought the same if she had her natural hair.

The chapter ends with another blog post, in which Ifemelu writes that all minorities aspire toward whiteness and asks what WASPs aspire toward.

Analysis: Chapters 17–19

Ifemelu’s decision to return to her Nigerian accent marks a turning point in her development because she places a limit on how much she is willing to change herself to achieve success. She reevaluates her efforts to sound American instead of Nigerian, challenging the belief that her ability to emulate American qualities is something she should feel proud of. By placing emphasis on the work she puts into affecting an American accent, she’s able to categorize her accent as unnatural and inauthentic. If she were to embrace such a mannered quality over what she sees as her inherent self, she would be agreeing that a false, Americanized Ifemelu is better than her true self. Ever since Ifemelu moved to America, other people have encouraged her to alter herself to survive, evidenced most concretely by Ngozi’s social security card. By the end of this section, Ifemelu has the confidence to stand firm in her identity. She no longer wants to pretend to be someone she isn’t in order to get ahead.

The struggles of Aunty Uju and Dike, read in conjunction with Ifemelu’s blog posts, highlight the ways racism makes everyday life difficult to navigate. Aunty Uju is now qualified to practice medicine in two countries, and yet white Americans still react with doubt and suspicion at the thought of her being a doctor. Dike’s sad anecdote about sunscreen demonstrates the subtle ways stereotypes can hurt Black people, as Dike could have gotten sunburned. Perhaps even sadder is the desire he expresses to be “regular,” identifying whiteness as a default. Ifemelu’s blog identifies the value American society places on whiteness and also introduces the idea that everyone aspires toward whiteness. The hierarchy of racial privilege that Ifemelu observes is evident in the way that Aunty Uju and Dike face incessant racist treatment and microaggressions. Their desire to be white, then, is the desire to live without the burdens of an intensely racist society.

The incident with Kelsey at the salon is another manifestation of the white savior attitude, as Kelsey loves the idea of Africa as long as she can control the narrative around it. She asks the women in the salon questions about their countries that presuppose poverty and sexism, meaning that the polite answers they give contribute to Kelsey’s understanding of Africa as a place in need of help. She believes Things Fall Apart , which is written by a Nigerian author about Nigeria, is less honest than a book about an unspecified African country that focuses on Europe. A Bend in the River ’s lack of specificity fits a Western vision of Africa as a singular place instead of a large continent with many different countries and cultures. Her desire to have African-style braids in her hair mirrors the way she speaks about Africa with authority. The braids metaphorically take ownership of an African aesthetic despite her not truly understanding what they entail. She becomes annoyed at Ifemelu’s objection because Ifemelu is challenging her right to dictate African authenticity.

The first introduction to Curt highlights his expectation to maintain control of the world around him at all times. He claims that Ifemelu did not respond to his advances at first because she didn’t want to date a white man, which is a complete fabrication. Curt has made himself the author of their story. Furthermore, by insisting that Ifemelu was the one who worried about race, he positions himself as the more open-minded person willing to break the taboos of society without fear. Curt uses his privileges to make Ifemelu’s life easier, but always in a way that is calculated to make him look generous. Ifemelu even resents the ease he creates for her, relative to the struggles of her ASA friends, which suggests that she feels ambivalent about the privilege available to her because she’s his girlfriend. Ifemelu thinks of Curt immediately after the scene with Kelsey, both of whom exercise willful ignorance in order to invent a narrative that bolsters their sense of self. These parallels subtly reveal the controlling and self-serving aspects of Curt’s sunny disposition and eagerness to help Ifemelu.