By Bryon Williams, Humanities—Juniors in Global Literature are currently showcasing their culminating projects in their study of Americanah, the award-winning 2013 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Students had already read Adichie’s short non-fiction book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, and Americanah serves as an even more expansive exploration of identity, gender, and race in the twenty-first century.
The novel follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States to attend college. By offering the perspective of a newcomer to the U.S., the novel is particularly insightful in articulating the cultural relativity of race (“I only became black when I came to America,” the protagonist says at one point) and standards of beauty. In order to improve her dire job prospects, for example, Ifemelu is compelled to straighten her hair through an unending series of expensive, time-consuming, and even painful procedures and products (leading one of her friends to tell her, “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you”). Ifem navigates societal pressures of appearance and body image faced by all young women, and the novel further demonstrates the compound difficulties of assimilating as an immigrant and a woman of color.
In devising research topics linked to the novel, students displayed a strong multi-disciplinary approach that capitalized on their related work in history with Mr. Healy and in science classes with Ms. Hewitt. In a Monopoly-style board game called “The Game of Privilege,” one student pair dramatized the effects of systemic racism. The privileged game piece, for instance, inherits wealth from parents whose house in a desirable suburb appreciated in value for decades, while the game piece without privilege (whose parents were shut out of the housing market by redlining and other discriminatory housing policies) inherits only unpaid medical bills.
Other projects tackled the complicated intersection of race and genetics, with students digging into the latest research behind the assertion of one character in the novel that “race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not a genotype; race is a phenotype.” This is far from a simple or settled matter, as the latest iteration of the debate was playing out in real time in the pages of The New York Times even as students were conducting their research. Another infographic depicts two people of different races who travel starkly different paths through the criminal justice system for the very same offense. Multiple other projects examined standards of beauty as embodied in cosmetics, hairstyles, representation in fashion, and ballet attire. Through data, collage, and original artwork, these creative young women have brought a compelling, real-world urgency to their literary studies. They have learned from each other, and we can all learn from their splendid work! Projects are on display on the Manor House fourth floor near room 400.