Ifemelu is the protagonist of Americanah. She's born in Lagos, Nigeria, where she's raised in a small apartment by her mother and father. Her childhood is difficult. Her mother gets taken in by a zealous evangelical church and begins an unhealthy habit of fasting until she gets sick. Ifemelu's father loses his job at an unnamed government agency, and the family struggles to make ends meet. In spite of all these obstacles, Ifemelu excels in school, where she meets the love of her life, Obinze. Intellectually, the two are equals, but Obinze has had a more refined upbringing, thanks to his mother. Ifemelu feels drawn both to his body and his mind, and during their first sexual encounters she's so overcome with emotion that she's unable to see the ceiling even with her eyes open (this is the source of her nickname for him, "Ceiling"). Ifemelu commits to Obinze as a young woman, but is unprepared for a long distance relationship. Soon after arriving in America, she stops responding to Obinze's letters. She falls into a deep depression, which she refuses to think of as "depression" because she doesn't believe in the American habit of diagnosing every feeling as a kind of mental illness.
Nevertheless, Ifemelu becomes Americanized. She starts picking up the slang, puts on weight, briefly straightens her hair, and experiences true racism for the first time. As a result, she's forced to identify as a non-American black and to contend with the racism she sees around her and in the media. While in college, Ifemelu works as a nanny in the suburbs, where she meets Curt, her boss's cousin. Though initially wary of his wealth and connections, she allows him to set up a job interview for her at a public relations firm in Baltimore. Soon after, they move in together, but in spite of his well-meaning and "progressive" views, Curt, who is white, still harbors some racial bias. This leads Ifemelu to break up with Curt and to get together with Blaine, an African American professor whose politics more closely align with hers. Ifemelu grows dissatisfied with their relationship, however. This is a pattern in Ifemelu's life: dissatisfaction and the yearning for something she can't identify or explain. Eventually, she moves to Nigeria, where she reconnects with Obinze, finding fulfillment at last.
Obinze was raised in Nsukka. His mother, a professor at Nsukka University, taught him how to cook (a rare thing among Nigerian men) and fostered his love of books. His upbringing opens many doors for him, and his refined beliefs and mannerisms attract Ifemelu to him all the more. His social status, however, doesn't help him secure a visa, and when he can't join Ifemelu in America he goes to Great Britain, where he lives and works as an illegal immigrant. Like many Nigerian immigrants, Obinze is at the mercy of governments and immigration authorities that think nothing of his education. When a treacherous man tips off the police, Obinze is arrested and deported. This experience shames him. In the end, however, it works out in his favor because he falls into a lucrative business in Lagos, where he becomes a wealthy man. Throughout all of this, he never forgets Ifemelu, and when she returns to Nigeria he's forced to choose between her and his wife.
Obinze's mother is a professor at Nsukka University. When Ifemelu and Obinze first meet, a rumor is circulating that his mother attacked a fellow professor. In fact, that professor (a man) slapped her in a meeting because he couldn't bear to be accused of professional wrongdoing by a woman. This caused a scandal at Nsukka University, and the response from the university students—that the man should never have struck her, not because she's a person but because she's a widow—irritated her. She decided to take a much-needed vacation in Lagos, which put Obinze in the right place at the right time to meet Ifemelu. His mother's sudden illness leads him and Ifemelu to change their college plans and enroll at Nsukka University together. His mother's death is a particular blow to him.
Ifemelu's Mother and Father
Ifemelu's mother is a devout Christian and a member of Pastor Gideon's evangelical church. Ifemelu is ten years old when her mother comes home one day, convinced that she must fast in order to drive the Devil out of her family's life. Ifemelu's father is powerless to stop her. He unexpectedly loses his job at a federal agency because he won't call his female boss "Mummy." Much later, he finally gets a new job and is able to support his family, but this doesn't happen until Ifemelu has already moved to America. That she doesn't know this until well after the fact indicates just how far apart Ifemelu and her parents have grown.
When we're first introduced to Aunty Uju, she's the General's mistress and lives in style. On at least one occasion, she asks him for money to help Ifemelu's parents pay their bills. Her relationship with the General lasts several years, until finally Aunty Uju decides to have a child, Dike. She hopes that the General will take responsibility for their son, but he disowns Dike instead and throws Aunty Uju out, refusing to support her. Aunty Uju moves to America, where she continues the medical training she began in Nigeria. It isn't easy, however. She's a single mother in a foreign country and often has to work three jobs in order to make ends meet. Eventually, however, she passes her medical exams, and she moves to Massachusetts with her boyfriend. She partners with a local doctor and enrolls her son in school but decides to transfer him after he's bullied by the other kids. When Dike is a teenager, he attempts suicide. Aunty Uju is devastated. Her devotion to Dike further proves that she's a fierce, loving mother.
Dike is Aunty Uju's son. His father, the General, disowns him, refusing to take responsibility for Aunty Uju and their child, financially or otherwise. Dike is just a child when his mother moves him to the United States in search of a better life. He lives first in New York, then Massachusetts, where he's bullied in school by the white children. His suicide attempt devastates his family and emphasizes the difficulty immigrant families face when trying to integrate into American society.
The General is Aunty Uju's "mentor," as Obinze's mother euphemistically calls him. In truth, Aunty Uju is the General's mistress, and he keeps her living in comfort—that is, until their illegitimate son, Dike, is born. Shortly after the birth, the General throws Aunty Uju and Dike out, and the two move to America, where Aunty Uju pursues a career as a doctor.
Curt is Ifemelu's first American boyfriend and Kimberly's cousin. Ifemelu and Curt meet while she works as a nanny for Kimberly. At first, Ifemelu doesn't think of Curt as dating material, in part because he's white. Later, after he dives into some bushes after a lost frisbee, Ifemelu reconsiders. He uses his family's considerable business connections to secure her a job interview at a public relations firm in Baltimore. This isn't a selfless act on Curt's part. He's trying to impress Ifemelu and wants her to move from Philadelphia to Baltimore so that they can see each other more often. Their relationship is kind and supportive but ultimately unfulfilling for Ifemelu. Curt can sense this. One day he snaps, "I don't want to be a sweetheart. I want to be the fucking love of your life." When she breaks up with him, he's heartbroken, but it doesn't take him long to get used to the idea.
Blaine is Ifemelu's second American boyfriend. Blaine and Ifemelu first meet on a train while she's living with Curt but reunite several years later at a conference in Washington, D.C. He's an assistant professor at Yale and writes a blog about race and popular culture. Ifemelu moves to New Haven to live with him and continue writing her blog. His sister, Shan, makes fun of Ifemelu's blog at a party, but this is just her nature. She's a highly critical person, both of herself and others, and is devastated when her book is panned by critics. Blaine softens Shan's criticism, making suggestions for Ifemelu's blog rather than giving a critique, but it's clear that he has strong opinions about how the blog should look. His politics sometimes get in the way of his relationship with Ifemelu, and they don't always see eye to eye, as when she initially supports Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Her failure to attend a demonstration Blaine organizes signals problems in their relationship. Ifemelu withdraws, and eventually they break up. This is just one in a string of very similar breakups for Ifemelu.
Shan is Blaine's sister, whom he describes as being capable of and doing everything. She's also a writer but is hypercritical of other writers, including Ifemelu. She subtly puts down Ifemelu's blog at a party only to have her own book (a memoir about race) panned by critics.
Kosi is Obinze's wife and the mother of his child. Obinze doesn't love Kosi but stays with her out of a sense of obligation to his family. Their marriage is comfortable without being passionate, and it's clear that Kosi is more invested in the relationship than her husband. She frequently becomes jealous and even institutes a rule that no single women are allowed to visit their home. Eventually, Obinze leaves Kosi for Ifemelu, but he makes it clear that he still wants to be a part of his daughter's life.
Buchi is Obinze and Kosi's only child. Little is said about her except that her parents dote on her.
Ginika is one of Ifemelu's childhood friends. She moves to the United States before Ifemelu and gets established in Pittsburgh, where she later helps Ifemelu acclimate to American life. Ginika is the one who gets Ifemelu an interview with Kimberly, the woman who hires Ifemelu as a nanny. Ifemelu and Ginika remain good friends throughout the novel.
Mariama is the owner and proprietor of the hair salon Mariama African Hair Braiding.
Aisha is one of the stylists at Mariama African Hair Braiding. She has large pink sores on her arms that disgust Ifemelu. Aisha also has two Igbo boyfriends. She asks Ifemelu's advice on how to make one of them marry her; she doesn't care which one.
(The entire section is 1746 words.)