What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Gets Wrong About Blackness and Nigeria
She has often said she became Black in the United States, but what does this really mean?
In a recent interview about identity and feminism with the Economist, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remarked on how she began to identify as Black only when she came to the United States for university. It’s a story she’s told many times before, referring to how “Blackness” becomes a marker of identity in this part of the world — the West — which is not the case in Nigeria, according to Adichie. The Americanah author specifically professed that, unlike in other parts of the world, “skin color didn’t have meaning” in Nigeria.
It was only a few lines — in total, a one-minute clip of a 35-minute conversation — but the sound bites were enough to provoke an online debate about race, color, and identity and what it means to Nigerians. With more than 200 million people in the country and the highest estimation set at 15 million for its worldwide diaspora, Nigerians are ostensibly from the “Blackest” country on earth. As such, Adichie’s comments and the lively exchange that ensued about her statement’s accuracy or lack thereof raises the question: What, if anything, does “Blackness” mean in such a space as this?
For many people born in Nigeria, Adichie’s statements were correct in the context that race—or, more accurately, Blackness—is not a salient identity in the country because most of its population is Black. Instead, ethnicity and religion are far more distinguishing identifiers that indicate shared experiences in a country that isn’t multiracial to any significant extent but is an ethnically and religiously diverse space.
Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn, a Lagos-based Nigerian-British author and director of the Ake Arts and Book Festival, agrees. Shónẹ́yìn was born in Nigeria and moved to Scotland at six years old in the early 1980s. “Even at six, my schoolmates would call me Black Sambo or even Black n*gger. I felt slightly paralyzed by this, because I didn’t have the language or the understanding to compose the appropriate response,” she says. “But there was also confusion. I didn’t understand where all this ‘Black’ this and ‘Black’ that was coming from…Identity is about ethnicity and…