Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Ifemelu, Blaine, and Blaine’s friends all see Obama as a symbol of hope for the future of America. However, despite Ifemelu’s observation that everyone in their group seems to agree on Obama, they do not actually agree on what specific hopes Obama represents. Obama’s multifaceted family history allows for multiple interpretations of what his election to office means. He is the child of a poor Kenyan father, and therefore his success seems to comment on the possibility of the American dream for someone like Dike. Black Americans also see him as representative of progress. Ifemelu’s blog posts highlight the myriad meanings projected onto Obama, including the possibility of black men seeing beauty in black women, and a magical black man who will soothe white anxiety about racism. The way in which Obama and his presidential candidacy represent so many hopes at the same time, therefore, symbolizes the complex and often contradictory nature of the racial category of “black” as it exists in America.
Ifemelu’s reclamation of her natural hair mirrors her acceptance of her Nigerian identity. When she first cuts her hair down, Ifemelu believes her hair to be ugly. This shame is similar to how she’s made to feel about her Nigerian accent, leading her to affect an American one. Just as she considers her American accent to be a false air she puts on, by relaxing her hair she forces a part of herself to contort into an unnatural shape. Others do not allow Ifemelu’s hair to be a neutral representation of Ifemelu’s identity. Ifemelu’s coworkers assume her hair is a political statement. Her Nigerian friends don’t understand her natural hairstyle, mirroring how Nigerian immigrants throughout the novel are allured by Western culture. Although caring for her natural hair takes effort, Ifemelu finds joy in conditioning, contrasting the stress of relaxing her hair. Similarly, her return to Nigeria has challenges, but she finds satisfaction instead of doubt in writing about Lagos. Ifemelu’s love of her hair, therefore, matches her love of Nigeria, and she finds joy in authenticity.
Ifemelu’s desire to see the male peacock dance culminates in an anticlimax where the female peacock rejects his advances, highlighting the ultimate failure of superficial splendor. Ifemelu has just returned from America, which, despite its glossy promise of success, has only led her to return to the more chaotic Lagos, which she feels is authentic to her identity. Like the glossy images of America, the male peacock is beautiful, but his beauty does not seduce the female peacock. The failure of the male peacock also echoes Obinze’s failed attempt to carry on an affair with Ifemelu. Although Obinze has shown Ifemelu his new wealth and even implied a willingness to invest in her new blog, she finds it to be no substitute for living with him honestly. Like the male peacock, his lavish display of wealth does not hold up, and results in Obinze looking as “ridiculous” as the bird itself. Ifemelu’s growth throughout the novel is centered around embracing authenticity, and the female peacock’s rejection of the male succinctly summarizes her newfound self, who prefers reality to a beautiful image.