I recently read “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian writer; born 1977) and “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us” by Claude Steele (African American; born 1941; social psychologist; dean of Stanford University Graduate School of Education). 

Both books discuss people defining or being defined by the society in which they exist.  The author of “Americanah” has lived and been educated in several countries. 

She defines others, as well as herself, based on her experiences, knowledge, observations and/or interpretations of behaviors and appearances of people and the social hierarchies of the countries in which they reside or resided.  No matter where she goes, she is seen and treated as a black woman from Africa.

This can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on whether she is seen as needy, sexy, exotic, intelligent or exceptional.  She is made painfully or delightfully aware of this. 

“Americanah” can be described as a love story because much of it is about love – love for family, friends, strangers and lovers.  I found myself constantly jotting down lines from the book because it is filled with poetic phrasing of her perceptions and truths. 

The following quotes are examples. 

“…how even just the semblance of wealth oiled his paths.”

“There was something immodest about her modesty; it announced itself.”

“…they make you become aggressive just to hold your dignity.”

“…the biggest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are white women.”

Dr. Steele titled his book “Whistling Vivaldi” based on a story told to him by a black male who found that if he whistled some Vivaldi music, white people did not act frightened when he approached them on the street.  After all, who but an educated, non-criminal-minded black man would know Vivaldi?  (Antonio Vivaldi, Italian Baroque composer and virtuoso violinist, lived from 1678-1741.)

The book is about research that shows the relationship between a person’s self-concept based on his/her awareness of racial, gender or age stereotypes. Dr. Steele’s book discusses the experiments held to show that groups of people can be handicapped or empowered by what they believe society expects of them and thereby what they expect of themselves. 

For example, if women and African Americans accept societal stereotypes that they cannot do well in math and the sciences, the chances are that they will not do well. 

Both books made me realize how important it is to have people around you that embrace you and constantly remind you to say, “I am somebody.” (Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr.). 

I was fortunate enough to grow up with blacks and whites, foreigners and American citizens, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics that believed in me and never told me that I had to assume or keep my place as a black person stereotyped in the U.S.A. 

Everyone benefits when people don’t force others to stay on the bottom rung of “the ladder of racial (ageist, sexist, or religious) hierarchy.”* I repeat:

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” – Frederick Douglass in a speech given in the District of Columbia, April 1886, on the 24th anniversary of the Emancipation. Mr. Douglass, (c. 1817-1895) was a U.S. abolitionist who escaped from slavery, a writer and lecturer in the North. 

* Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche