Americanah: America’s tribalisms

The themes of Americanah keep appearing in my other classes, and I’m really excited (my American idiom is self-aware here – see page 167, and another commentary on “excited” earlier in the text that I can’t find) about the interdisciplinary overlap of these themes. I’m reading The New Jim Crow in an Anthro class, we just read M. Butterfly, (a play critiquing Western paternalistic imperialism) in my Lit Theory class, essays by Ellen Willis about American pop sensibility and second wave feminism for a Cultural Journalism course, and I just discussed two captivity narratives dominated by racial and religious dehumanization in my Early Texts class. Each of these texts engages some aspect of Ifemelu’s critique of American culture, and I think her analysis is well summed-up in her theory of American tribalisms.

Ifemelu first theorizes America’s tribalisms when she dives into American novels: “And as she read, America’s mythologies began to take on meaning. America’s tribalisms – race, ideology, and region, became clear” (Adichie 167). She deepens this understanding in one of her blog posts called “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism” and adds the category of “class” to the three categories previously mentioned. This project of comprehending the American ethos by dissecting our culture into tribal alignments is fascinating. I think Ifemelu uses “tribalism” with irony; we Americans are quick to ascribe primitive or tribal signifiers onto African cultures that are most often not operated in terms of tribes, yet we – the civilized West – are in reality organized along tribal lines. Her analysis also made me think of a specific passage in M. Butterfly, in which Song, a Chinese man performing the role of the ideal woman to seduce Gallimard, a French diplomat in China, tells Gallimard, “You’re a Westerner. How can you objectively judge your own values?” (Hwang 21). When I read this, I thought about Ifemelu, and how she seems to see America so clearly for what it is, picking up on things that would be otherwise invisible to Americans. This made me question my consciousness of my own American identity, and whether I – or any other native-born American – can ever get enough critical distance to evaluate American culture. It seems like I am always already inculcated in Americanness, an Althusserian subject made in the image of my own country’s ideology.

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