Summary: Chapter 20

Ifemelu moves to Baltimore for work. Now that she lives in the same city as Curt, she notices that he is always looking for things to do. She constantly needs to reassure him that she likes him.

Ifemelu’s hair begins to fall out from the chemicals in the relaxer. Wambui encourages her to wear her hair natural, arguing that relaxers are unnatural. Wambui cuts Ifemelu’s hair. Ifemelu hates it. Curt thinks Ifemelu’s hair is brave. Ifemelu calls in sick to work out of embarrassment. Wambui directs Ifemelu to a website about natural Black hair. Ifemelu reaches for Curt’s laptop to look up the site. Curt panics when he sees her look at his laptop and tells her that the emails mean nothing. Ifemelu realizes he’s cheating on her. Curt blames the other woman for continuing to email him, and claims he only emailed back when she wouldn’t stop. Ifemelu shouts that Curt’s exes all had long, thick hair and storms out. Curt apologizes with flowers. Ifemelu forgives him because she thinks the other woman only boosted his ego.

When Ifemelu returns to work, her coworkers ask if her hair is a political statement. The natural hair website gives Ifemelu a community of women with hair like hers and vocabulary to talk about it. She likens talking to the women on the website to giving testimony in church, as they reaffirm each other’s beauty. Ifemelu finally loves her hair.

The blog post that ends the chapter discusses how Barack Obama’s marriage to a dark-skinned Black woman allows deeper-skinned Black women to see themselves as desirable.

Summary: Chapter 21

Aunty Uju asks Ifemelu to talk Dike into wearing a nice shirt to church. Aunty Uju keeps trying to make Dike tone himself down because he already stands out. Ifemelu tells Dike he won’t see anyone he knows in church, and promises to talk to Aunty Uju about not making him wear the shirt again.

Curt is charming when he meets Aunty Uju. Ifemelu finds Curt’s performative charm exhausting. Aunty Uju is upset about an essay Dike wrote about not knowing what he is. She blames America’s obsession with identity for his confusion, and won’t talk to him about it.

Aunty Uju complains that Bartholomew expects her to make dinner for him and wants to control her salary. He doesn’t want to spend money on Dike, nor does he care about Dike’s school issues. He blames racism for the banks not approving his business loan. Aunty Uju blames Bartholomew for not moving to a city with more opportunities for Black people, and the former heads of Nigeria for ruining the country so she had to come to America. Infuriated by Bartholomew’s laziness around the house, Aunty Uju leaves him.

The chapter ends with a blog post in which Ifemelu informs other Black non-Americans that they are considered Black in America. She tells them to acknowledge the Black American definition of racism, even if they don’t understand why. She explains that above all they must never speak about racism as if they are angry about it.

Summary: Chapter 22

Ifemelu sees Kayode at the mall. Kayode says Obinze, who is now in England, had asked Kayode to find her and tell him what she looks like now. Kayode asks what happened between them. Ifemelu gives him the cold shoulder and walks away. She worries what he will tell Obinze after she gets into Curt’s car. She wonders why Obinze is in England when all he used to think about was America. Curt asks about her mood. When she tells Curt she ran into a Nigerian friend, Curt asks if Kayode was her ex-boyfriend. Ifemelu says no.

Ifemelu writes an email to Obinze, telling him that her silence felt stupid to her, but she could not explain it. Obinze never replies.

Curt tells her that he booked her a massage, and Ifemelu comments on how sweet he is. Curt angrily retorts that he does not want to be sweet, but that he wants to be the love of her life.

Analysis: Chapters 20–22

Ifemelu’s emotional journey with her hair recalls her realization that she did not want to force her accent, furthering her growth toward an authentic self. When Wambui discusses relaxers, she describes them as trying to force hair into a shape it wasn’t meant to have, emphasizing how unnatural it is for Black hair to be straight. By learning to love her Black hair as it is, Ifemelu learns to appreciate another aspect of her true, effortless self. However, because wearing her Black hair means not giving into the white supremacist approval of straight hair, the people around her expect her choice to wear her hair naturally to have a political motive. She cannot simply like her hair as it is because Black natural hair is not considered attractive by white society.

Aunty Uju’s request that Ifemelu convince Dike to wear the shirt highlights the difference between Aunty Uju and Ifemelu’s philosophies on self-expression. In Nigeria, Aunty Uju’s advice was often that Ifemelu should hide her true self, emphasizing the importance of appearing agreeable for the sake of getting ahead. Aunty Uju’s fears about Dike’s clothing are similar to the concerns around Ifemelu’s behavior because Aunty Uju is attempting to keep Dike from getting into trouble. However, when presented with the same task Aunty Uju once had, Ifemelu encourages Dike to temporarily compromise instead of completely hiding his self-expression. She points out that no one important to him will see him wear the uncool shirt, which means that he will temporarily soothe Aunty Uju’s anxieties without portraying a false persona to the people who matter to him. In addition, Ifemelu offers to get Aunty Uju on his side about the shirt, fighting back against the adult wisdom of not standing out. Whereas Aunty Uju’s philosophy relies on hiding of one’s self-expression for protection, Ifemelu is practical, and finds a way for Dike to express his personality with minimal consequences.

Aunty Uju leaves Bartholomew because of his inability to provide her with a comfortable life by either American or Nigerian standards. Because she dated Bartholomew in part to recreate her relationship with The General, she expected Bartholomew to take care of her financially and behave as a father to Dike. Instead, Bartholomew takes ownership of Aunty Uju’s money and refuses to allow her any control over it. Although The General also withheld Aunty Uju’s money, she found this arrangement acceptable because he offered her luxuries and privileges. In America, Aunty Uju has created her own opportunities without Bartholomew’s help, and yet Bartholomew wants to reap all the benefits simply because he is her husband. Furthermore, he fails at being an American businessman because he is unwilling to acknowledge the structural racism faced by people who are considered Black in America, choosing to giving up rather than move to a city with more opportunities for Black people. Aunty Uju decides that she cannot put herself aside for someone who gives nothing in return, demonstrating new growth and confidence.

Ifemelu is angry at Kayode for mentioning Obinze because he reminds her that she is dissatisfied with Curt. While she associates her relationship with Obinze with honesty and truth, throughout the last few chapters, Ifemelu has associated Curt with performance. She notes he has a deep insecurity that leads him to constantly curry favor with everyone, from Aunty Uju to the woman he may have had an emotional affair with. Curt’s false charm has a hunger about it that requires constant reassurance, as opposed to Obinze’s honesty and sureness that allowed for disagreement between them. After seeing Kayode, Ifemelu can barely pay attention to Curt because she is so distracted with thoughts of Obinze. Curt’s surprising anger at the end of Chapter 22 foreshadows the end of their relationship, both because of the instability of his goodwill and the way he realizes that his “sweetness” cannot fully charm Ifemelu when compared to the specter of Obinze. While he doesn’t explicitly know about Obinze, his shouting that he wants to be the love of Ifemelu’s life suggests that he suspects the existence of a man like Obinze in her past.