Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie visited Duke University last night to talk to first-year students about ‘Americanah,’ Duke’s summer reading pick for 2014. It was a remarkable event, that notably began and ended in thunderous applause and a standing ovation for Ms. Adichie. Adichie was witty and sharp as she addressed issues of intersectionality in her novel, while also articulating a sense of urgency in provoking her readers to consider the ways in which “universally” held (mis)conceptions of race, gender, class, and sexuality manifest in a broader social context. Like the female protagonist in ‘Americanah’, Ifemelu, Adichie spoke with a self-assurance that registered as doing the very work of empowerment that she repeatedly gestured to during last night’s lively discussion. In a sense, Adichie seemed to challenge first-year students to take her narrative to heart, not just by simply admiring it, but rather internalizing it. The sight of Adichie addressing a packed auditorium of students (and a few Duke community members!) was mesmerizing. Indeed Adichie enjoys a certain celebrity given the sampling of her TED talk “We should all be feminists” in Beyonce’s recent track ‘Flawless,’ but celebrity doesn’t adequately account for the energy and palpable enthusiasm that filled Baldwin Auditorium last night. The experience of reading ‘Americanah’ is unriveled in the way Adichie is able to offer such a precise, jargon-less commentary on the toll of being marked as Other–the toll of “difference”–that is then elevated by a moving plot and ever-evolving characterization. Adichie is unapologetic as a feminist, writer, and woman of color making her presence known in a literary milieu where embracing “difference” still comes with a tangible risk–the risk being that our complacency might be “threatened” as we come into consciousness and face our trouble ridden world.
I think last night was powerful. And enlightening. It was consciousness-raising. It was the marriage of social justice and literature in live time, proof of the manifold ways that art can incite us to action. I think it was validating to those sitting in the audience to nod their heads in agreement with Adichie’s raw and honest words. It was comforting to hear a strong female voice lay bare the rampant misogyny and racism that clutters our very being in the world.
That being said, I want to emphasize how the communal act of reading ‘Americanah’ and witnessing Adichie’s talk last night sends a strong message to first-year students about what kind of space Duke can be if you demand it.
These are the types of conversations you can have if you demand it.
This can be your Duke if you demand it.
Below you will find a Storify of Adichie’s visit to Duke, which is essentially a collection of all the tweets from the event organized in a somewhat linear fashion! Enjoy!