Summer Reading at Tubman

As I sit to write this first blog entry as Interim Director, summer humidity has enveloped Toronto and I have just finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel Americanah.  From the author of Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and Purple Hibiscus (2003), Americanah seems like the perfect Tubman summer reading. Like the Harriet Tubman Institute, the story begins in Nigeria and travels to the US and UK with themes along the way of identity, racism, diasporas, relationships, and migration.  

americanah book coverThe novel’s first scene is set at Princeton where the protagonist, Ifemelu, has a fellowship. We meet Ifemelu as she makes the trek to a braiding salon in Trenton and contemplates her return to Nigeria after 13 years in the U.S.  (Hair – debates about relaxing, straightening, braids and Afros – features as an important subject in the novel.)  After completing high school in Lagos and immigrating to the U.S., Ifemelu attends university, struggles to find work, and eventually establishes a successful anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black .  The novel is brilliant, funny, incisive and moving.

Based on many of her own experiences in the U.S., Adichiehas a keen eye for how migration shifts identities but also how we perform identities – indeed one of her observations is that Ifemelu does not think of herself as black in Nigeria and then choses not to lose her accent even after 10 years in the States. On return to Nigeria, though, her perspective has changed and she is seen as an ‘Americanah’. And ‘Americanahs’ think about blackness differently than both African Americans and Nigerians. This point has been much discussed in reviews and interviews. I won’t spoil your reading of the book, but suffice it to say, her observations about university politics, well-meaning liberals, and racial identity ring true even north of the border.

This week marks the beginning of the student summer program at the Tubman Institute. More than twenty teenagers have come to York for a program about African history and its diasporas. With a great program put together by Abubacar Fofana Leon and Michele Johnson, students are talking about hip hop culture, Afro-Cuban dance, ‘shadeism’, media and literature, and food justice.  (If it weren’t 477 pages, I would suggest they read Americanah!). The week after next we host, along with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, “ Across the Border: A Transnational Approach to Teaching the Underground Railway ” for Canadian and American teachers. Co-organized by Karolyn Smart Frost (author of I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land) this will be another great summer institute at the Harriet Tubman.

Happy summer. 
Happy reading.

annie bunting
Associate Professor of Law & Society
Graduate Program in Socio-Legal Studies

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