So Why Doesn’t Ifemelu Just Tell Obinze What Happened to Her? (The Answer: It is Not that Easy!)
“Intersectionality” sounds like one of those clunky words you hear (and immediately dismiss) in discussions about race — until you figure out you need it. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, one significant event was when Ifemelu experiences a traumatic encounter of transactional sex with a tennis coach while desperately trying to make ends meet and, for that reason, enters a period of silence and ceases all contact with her boyfriend, Obinze. At first, this seems like another plot device to drive Ifemelu and Obinze apart, just in case the geographical distance between the United States and Nigeria wasn’t enough to do that, and one might even ask in frustration, “WHY DOESN’T SHE JUST TELL OBINZE?!” Suddenly, that clunky word, “Intersectionality”, is needed in order to recognize that this traumatic experience Ifemelu went through is further exacerbated by the circumstances of her situation at that time. Accordingly, Intersectionality provides readers with the lens to fully examine the internal motivations behind the actions that Ifemelu took, as a black woman who had recently immigrated to the United States from Nigeria.
Specifically, Ifemelu’s traumatic sexual experience with the tennis coach has to be read within the context of Structural Intersectionality, which is defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw as “the ways in which the location of women of color at the intersection of race and gender make [their] actual experiences of domestic violence, rape, and remedial reform qualitatively different than that of white women”(1245). In addition, Crenshaw remarks that “women of color also frequently confront other multi-layered and routinized forms of domination…”(1245) because they are often unemployed or underemployed. And because they are struggling financially, they typically cannot change or escape the circumstances of their situation and so, the situations continue to go on, unseen and unspoken about. All this becomes viscerally encapsulated when Ifemelu imagines herself killing the tennis coach, fixating upon how she’d “plunge a knife into his muscled chest…then search his drawers for his bundle of one-hundred-dollar bills, so that she could pay her rent and her tuition”(Adichie 191). These descriptions of vengeance are explicit but also heighten our sympathies to the extreme violence that Ifemelu has received from the tennis coach and thereby wishes to reciprocate. From this passage, we can also read that due to her undocumented status, her lack of a steady income, her gender and her race, all that she can do after what had already happened is fantasize about his gruesome murder and, better yet, fantasize about not having to worry about paying her rent and tuition.
Adichie also highlights the extent of Ifemelu’s trauma by drawing attention to Ifemelu’s sense of discomfort with and dissociation from her body. Before the encounter with the tennis coach, Ifemelu was very comfortable with her body, finding warmth in physical contact with Obinze, as the two would lay in his bed “kissing and touching…clothing rolled up, shifted aside.…Their skins warm against each other”(Adichie 86). After the traumatic experience, Ifemelu was described to be sitting “naked on her bed…the hundred-dollar bill on the table, her body rising with loathing”(Adichie 190). Simply said, the significance of Ifemelu’s silence goes beyond a sense of betrayal towards Obinze and herself; Structural Intersectionality lets us acknowledge the fact that Ifemelu faces greater pressures because of her race, gender, and social class, which subordinate her to a point where she is simply unable to cry out for help. Hence, Adichie is not just giving her readers the old “girl-abruptly-stops-communicating-with-boy-and-their-relationship-is-Threatened” cliché but is consciously incorporating a relevant discourse about Intersectionality within her text.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. New York: Anchor, 2013.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241–1299.