October 29, 2013

The Promise of the American Dream

The United States offers hope and disappointment for immigrants from the developing world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a beautiful novel about cultural and emotional displacement. It follows the emigration from Nigeria of a talented young woman to the United States, her difficulty finding her footing here, her success, and then her eventual return to Nigeria. The book has been much admired in literary circles. Adichie is considered a powerful new voice in African fiction not unlike Chinua Achebe.  

For our purposes, Americanah merits reading for what it says about America in the world: the hope we represent for people seeking better lives than their own countries offer, the unrealistic expectations immigrants have of getting traction here, the pitiful advantage sometimes taken of them (both by Americans and their own expatriate communities), the envy of our seemingly effortless prosperity, the resentments foreigners harbor of our disinterest in their cultures and problems, and the considerable advantages that accrue with being an American citizen.

  what economic recovery  
  Photo credit: Chris Boland

Adichie’s finely trained eye catches many nice little moments of immigrant realization, such as when Ifemelu, the young woman at the center of the novel, is a new college student in the U.S., invited to a party by her roommates. She dresses up in her best clothes but is shocked to see that her roommates didn’t bother; what she concludes is that Americans are so powerful and self-assured they don’t have to conform to others’ standards. We are the makers of manners.

American confidence is a major theme in the book, in fact. An admired African professor tells Ifemelu, “it is the key to America’s greatness, this hubris.” Ifemelu’s transformation mirrors that trajectory. At first, she takes refuge in personal relationships—family and lovers—and then grows confident and self-sufficient. She makes her career by means that demonstrate she’s tapped in to the American zeitgeist: she becomes a celebrity blogger writing about what race in America looks like to an “NAB,” which stands for non-American black. She is critiquing us to us, at once outsider and insider.

There’s a wonderful scene in a clothing store soon after she emigrates, in which the American attendants twist themselves into knots to avoid confronting the reality of someone else’s race. Rather than calling black people “black,” the attendants identify, them by a number of other descriptors. The Africans are taken aback. Why would Americans pretend that race isn’t the main way to identify someone, especially when it’s the undercurrent of so much friction in American society? This scene conveys the ways Americans attempt to manage a diverse society, which is so central to the American experience.

Newly wealthy and independent, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria. But there, she encounters a disillusioning reality of social stratification and Nigerians getting rich off extractive industries and corruption. She judges herself a great success story but finds her sense of superiority fiercely challenged by childhood friends who consider her no different than social-climbing Nigerian mistresses (she got her green card and first important job through a man she was dating; and other crucial career opportunities both in the U.S. and Nigeria came from lovers’ largesse). 

One of the most powerful passages in the book tries to explain “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” that afflicts people who don’t live in free societies. They don’t try and change things because they know from hard and long experience that things won’t change. Things change in America: race is an unending argument, yet Barack Obama’s election figures prominently in the plot because change is possible here and that gives people hope. American society, with all its tumultuousness, creates a vitality that is hugely intimidating but also magnetic to foreigners, especially those from less-developed countries.  

In less literary circles, political scientists are vigorously debating what “the rise of the rest” will mean for American power. The novel Americanah suggests that “the rest” are becoming more appreciative of their own cultures, more critical of ours, and better able to communicate their objections on our terms. But it also highlights the vast resources and resourcefulness that make America the first choice of talented people disaffected in their own countries. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in English for a predominantly American audience to tell a story of African life melded with American identity. And American society is celebrating her work and reacting to her criticism.  Our ability to recognize what is making others successful and to improve ourselves is the factor overlooked by most political scientists arguing that America is in decline.

We have enduring advantages in our political and legal systems, our universities, our social norms, and our cultural malleability. While the novel Americanah often portrays Americans as unhappy despite all our advantages, it also convincingly shows how success is more possible here than anywhere else, and how our culture is fanning out to create greater opportunities in developing countries. The rest are rising through emulating America, not just politically and economically, but culturally. After all, even the brash protagonist of Americanah didn’t return to Nigeria until she was holding an American passport.


Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She has held the Distinguished Chair in International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy and worked in the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council and as senior policy adviser to the 2008 McCain presidential campaign. Her most recent book is State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practice of the State Department.


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