Who is our neighbor? An essential question in the face of current political rhetoric around the issue of immigration and rising racial tensions in the US. Who is our neighbor and how do we define ‘neighborliness’? When a lawyer asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life, he answered his own question by reciting the summary of the law – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But the lawyer didn’t like his own answer, so he pushed Jesus for more, for an answer that suited his own definition of ‘neighbor’ better. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked. Again, after hearing the tale of the Good Samaritan, the lawyer was forced to answer his own question. “The one who showed mercy.” The one who went out of his way to help a stranger. The one who looked at an enemy, an untouchable, and saw not his race, not his religion, not the politics of his ancestors, but a person, a neighbor, in need of healing and comfort.
My summer reading included the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book opens as Ifemelu prepares to return from the US to her home in Nigeria after a 15-year stay. As she spends the hours required to have her hair braided, her mind and heart return to her early years in Africa and to Obinze. A story of love, lost and found, frames a much deeper exploration of race and immigration. As teenagers, both Ifemelu and Obinze dream of emigrating to the West. Ifemelu receives that opportunity through a college scholarship and fares well in the US after some initial struggles. She succeeds as an academic and blogger. Obinze’s experience in Britain is not as positive and ends in deportation.
As she navigates her first few years in the US, Ifemelu sees herself as black for the first time. She says to a friend, “I came from a country where race was not an issue. I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” Later, she creates a blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” It is in the blog entries that Adichie mines the depths of racial issues most directly.
In one blog post, Ifemelu relates a discussion from one of her graduate classes about white privilege. A student from Appalachia who grew up poor asks, “Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can’t we just be human beings?” The professor replies that that is exactly what white privilege is, that he could say that. “Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier,” adds the blogger.
In other blogs the author gives Non-Blacks advice like, “Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions… Sometimes people just want to feel heard.”
Throughout her story, Adichie creates dialogue among American Blacks, Non-American Blacks and Whites that is both humorous and convicting. Her well-heeled employer, Kimberly, tries painfully and laughably to exhibit her identification with Africa’s problems and to apologize for all things racist in America. It was as though Kimberly believed, Adichie writes, “that she could, with apologies, smooth all the scalloped surfaces of the world.”
Americanah, published in 2013, is Adichie’s third novel and a national best seller. Her first book, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005). She has also written Half a Yellow Sun, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and a collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck. Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Adichie studied in the US. She now divides her time between Nigeria and the US.
So back to the question, “Who is our neighbor?” I met new neighbors in Americanah. And I met myself – my own racism and my hope for change. The greatest pleasure of reading is that it opens our often-parochial view of the world onto wider horizons and deeper understanding. As I have thought about what books address who our neighbors are, I have come to the conclusion that every story, every novel answers that query. Our neighbors are the other, those very much like us and those very different, those we know and love and those we have yet to meet. Our call? To love our neighbors. As Ifemelu ends one of her blog posts, “Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
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The Rev. Dr. Lee Anne Reat serves as vicar at St. John’s, Columbus.