I joined a book club in July. Thought it would be a good opportunity to meet other other people, including some book nerdy moms. The first meeting went well. I got along with all the ladies at my end of the table. About 23 people showed up. The organizer was really great and…organized.
I joined at the right time. Found it on meetup.com and it just so happened to be the first meeting. Score! The organizer explained the “rules” and printed out an info/rule sheet for us to follow along like a full credit course. The organizer explained that she made the first selections — three books which we were to vote on. After passing around the books, I was hoping for a certain pick – the short book about a young child whose parents got eaten by a bear and how the youngster had to survive on her own and take care of her younger brother. It was right up my alley. Dark, disturbing and of low intellectual interest.
I even ginned up support on my side of the table, getting them to chant an abbreviated version of the title. “The Bear! The Bear! The Bear.”
The second choice must have left little impression on me because I don’t even remember the title and nobody voted for it. The third however, “Americanah” by Nigerian born author Chimamanda Ngozi Aichie, well I was secretly hoping the book wouldn’t be chosen. For one thing, it’s really long. The paperback is 588 pages. Another — it’s about race and social justice. I just wanted to read about a mom who had gotten herself eaten by a bear, just enough of a distraction to lull me asleep at night.
When it came time to vote, the anticipation became intense, like the winning game shot in an NBA game with a one point difference. All but one person had voted and it came down to tie breaker. One woman ultimately had the power to go one direction or another and she looked right at me and said, “It’s NOT going to be “THE BEAR”. I’m going to with “Americanah.”
So, admittedly, I went into it with a less than stellar attitude. Further, when I went to check out the book at my local library, I found out someone from my book club had the book transferred from my library to theirs so I bought the book retail and committed to reading it.
“Americanah” is about a young Nigerian woman who falls in love with a charming, sweet man but leaves him, at his insistence, to attend Princeton in America. The story takes place shortly after 911 so Obinze, the boyfriend of Ifemelu, is unable to make to make it to the U.S. and gets stuck in the the UK because of added post 911 security measures.
I won’t give away spoilers about what comes of the young lovers, besides, the love story is more of an aside to the real point of the story which is that everyone Ifemelu meets in America is a racist, ignorant ethnocentric asshole. This theme remains constant throughout the book with Ifemulu giving grandiose, navel gazing speeches throughout the story line about the systemic racism, both intentional and unintentional, racing through veins of the U.S..
One particular scene describes Ifemula meeting a Nigerian friend who previously moved to the U.S. shopping together at a clothing store. Two young saleswomen approach them but only one winds up helping them — the black saleswoman of whom they don’t know her name. When the cashier asks them who helped them, neither Ifemelu nor her friend nor the cashier can bring themselves to ask the obvious question which could quickly identify the saleswoman, “Was she black?”
So, this turns out to be an indictment on how uncomfortable Americans are about race and about how we are scared to speak of our differences in a respectful way or something. (I actually would have said it was the black woman, but that’s just me.)
Later, at an Obama fundraiser or dinner or whatever if was, Ifemelu says something to the effect that she is not black in Nigeria, she only became “black” when she moved to the U.S..
But these small annoyances are not why I quit my book club before it barely got started.
The organizer of the book club set up a Facebook page so we could discuss our progress. I had a busy four weeks. Went on a busy vacation and had to get my kids prepared for school, so I lied about how far I was into the book thinking that I could put in some late nights and finish it. Who would know, right? I told the Facebok group I was halfway finished.
Part of the reason I lied is because despite my dislike of the book and its pontification, I felt obligated. See, the ladies I was sitting with at the first book club meeting — we started to compare notes. Turns out several of them had the same taste in books as me. I mentioned a few I wanted to read and enthusiastically, one of them nominated me to bring in the next set of books. I awkwardly accepted even though the organizer specified earlier in our meeting that the chooser of books would have to attend three meetings in order to qualify for book-pick-outter of the month. It was a way to weed out the flakes from the truly committed. I felt undue pressure to finish the book. A book I would have likely moved on from had I not been in this book club. Don’t get me wrong, it’s exceptionally written and it’s not a bad book, just not my thing.
Back to the Facebook page. The organizer also takes the liberty of posting several articles and pictures of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author. Adichie — a smart and attractive young women from what I’ve seen and read of her.
I decide to comment on one of the video clip linked from ted.com, to show the group I’m engaged. I say, “She’s so pretty. I’m a big fan of TED BTW.”
That night, I find out why.
A few chapters into my reading, I’m about halfway through, exactly where I fibbed and said I was a week earlier. In the book Ifemelu is interviewing with a potential emloyer for a Nanny position. She’s had a hard time finding work because she’s an immigrant and I guess she also wants us to believe it’s because she’s a black immigrant. The potential employer is described as wealthy white woman who apparently can’t help but exude and behave as an unintentional racist because that’s what white people do. At one point, Kimberly, the employer, points to a picture of a black model in a magazine and says something of the effect of, “Isn’t she stunning (and beautiful).”
Ifemelu was apparently offended by this comment. “Not all black women are beautiful,” Ifemelu said to Kimberly reinforcing the fact that whites feel the need to make stupid, unintentionally racist comments.
Further Kimberly talks about how Nigeria has all this great organic food (which I have no idea if they do or not) and calls the food in America “frankenfood.” So, yeah, Kimberly is major league dumb-shit.
After reading that particular excerpt it was clear why nobody commented on my comment about Chimamanda Ngozi Aichie being pretty. The last laugh was on me. Chimamanda Ngozi Aichie essentially suggested that calling her pretty was racist. How the fuck was I supposed to know that calling a black Nigerian woman pretty or beautiful is racist and why the hell is that racist?? I was paranoid and positive I was going to be held up as the example of all the unintentional racism in the world. To show up at the next book club would be surmountable as my coming in black face. I felt humiliated. I said Adichie is pretty and now everyone was gong to think I was a racist.
On top of all that, the woman who broke the tie to win “Americanah” is black and I was sure she was really going to think I was an asshole or think I was either being facetious or even worse, think I’m a racist. Ugh x 20,000.
I knew I would not be able to go and not say anything about it either. It’s simply not in my DNA to refrain from pointing out such moronic irony. And what would I say, “Look, I didn’t know. I’m really not a racist. Who knew that saying a black African woman is attractive or pretty is racist?”
That would be even worse! Everyone who says they’re not a racist is a racist, so I’m just screwed. I’m a screwed racist apparently. (But really. I’m not racist. But I never say that because a non racist doesn’t need to say that. I just might have to delete this clarification later.)
So I texted another book club member and asked her to present books in my place. She agreed and didn’t ask why.
And now I am without a book club to call home.