One of the contradictions of American society is that although race is central to the nation's history—a fact few deny—Americans often seem to struggle to see the ways that historical legacy continues to influence life today. (My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates noted this tendency this week in a piece on comments Charles Barkley made about black criminality.)
Perhaps the problem is the lack of a comparative experience: If all you know is American society, you can't pick out the anomalies. That's why it's helpful to hear the voices of people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novelist is the author of Americanah, and she may be best known to a broad audience through a sample of her TED Talk on the importance of feminism included on Beyoncé's "Flawless." Adichie was born in Nigeria but splits her time between there and the United States—"Home is where my best shoes are," she has said.
Many Americans seem to retain a vision of Africa as "the Dark Continent." Instead of the same base racism tropes of the past, there's a more nuanced, subtle one—the idea that Africa is a monolithic place, underdeveloped, perhaps disease-ridden, lacking in agency. Yet arriving in the United States, Adichie told Michele Norris at the Washington Ideas Forum Thursday, she was appalled by how, well, backward the country seemed in some ways.