This interview was originally broadcast on June 27, 2013.
When the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was growing up in Nigeria she was not used to being identified by the color of her skin. That changed when she arrived in the United States for college. As a black African in America, Adichie was suddenly confronted with what it meant to be a person of color in the United States. Race as an idea became something that she had to navigate and learn.
The learning process took some time and was episodic. Adichie recalls, for example, an undergraduate class in which the subject of watermelon came up. A student had said something about watermelon to an African-American classmate, who was offended by the comment.
"I remember sitting there thinking, 'But what's so bad about watermelons? Because I quite like watermelons,' " Adichie tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
She felt that her African-American classmate was annoyed with her because Adichie didn't share her anger — but she didn't have the context to understand why. The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was not taught to students in Nigeria. Adichie had yet to learn fully about the history of slavery — and its continuing reverberations — in the U.S.
"Race is such a strange construct," says Adichie, "because you have to learn what it means to be black in America. So you have to learn that watermelon is supposed to be offensive."
Adichie is a MacArthur Fellowship winner and author of the novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of A Yellow Sun. Her novel Americanah explores this question of what it means to be black in the U.S., and tells the story of a young Nigerian couple, one of whom leaves for England and the other of whom leaves for America.
The title, she says, is a Nigerian word for those who have been to the U.S. and return with American affectations.
"It's often used," she says, "in the context of a kind of gentle mockery."
On being African but not African-American in the United States
"I think that one is not burdened by America's terrible racial history, and I think when people say to me, 'You're different. You're not angry,' in some ways it also feels that I'm being made complicit for something that I don't want to be complicit in. Because in some ways they're saying, 'You're one of the good ones.' And I think to say that is to somehow ignore the reality of American history. So for example, people will say, 'Oh, you're so easy to get along with.' And they'll tell me some story of some African-American woman they knew who just wasn't like me. Which I find quite absurd."
On the American tradition of higher education
"I really love the American liberal arts college education system and the way you can take classes in philosophy, political science and communications. I was thrilled [as an undergraduate]. I don't think I quite had a plan. I did think I would go back home, which in many ways I have, because I have a life in both places. But I didn't really have a firm idea of what I would do with it. I was just so grateful to have classes that I not only did well in, but also enjoyed."
On why she aspired to have straight hair in Nigeria
"[T]he rite of passage from girl to woman is when you can go get a relaxer and have your hair straight. I remember looking forward very much to my last day of secondary school. ... When I graduated secondary school, what I really wanted to do was go straight to the hair salon and get my relaxer, so my hair would be straight. Then I came to the U.S., and ... I couldn't afford to get a relaxer at a hair salon here because I thought it was just needlessly expensive. So I went to the drugstore and bought the relaxer kit and decided to do it myself, which didn't end well. Having then a scalp with really bad burns, I suddenly thought, 'Why am I even doing this?' And that's when I stopped using relaxers. And it took a while to accept my hair for the way that it grows from my head."
On the affect the war in Nigeria had on her family
"My father lost everything, every material thing he owned. He also lost his father, who died in a refugee camp. My mother lost her father. My parents had just come back from the U.S. months before the war had started. ... [My father] gets back to Nigeria, he starts teaching at the University of Nigeria, and months later this war starts. ...
"My father tells a story about his father dying in a refugee camp. His father was a titled man in Igboland, which meant that he was a great man. He had one of the highest titles a man could have. But his hometown fell, so he had to leave and go to a refugee camp, and he died and he was buried in a mass grave. Which is just heartbreaking for a man, particularly a man like him. My father, who's the first son, and who takes his responsibilities very seriously, couldn't go to bury his father because the roads were occupied. He was in a different part of Biafra and so it took a year until ... he could go to the refugee camp. ... And he goes there and he says, 'I want to know where my father was buried.' And somebody waved very vaguely and said, 'Oh we buried the people there.' So it was a mass grave. So many people had died. And my father says he went there and he took a handful of sand, and he said he's kept the sand ever since. For me, that was one of the most moving things I had ever heard."
On the influence of Christianity and education in contemporary Africa
"[M]issionaries brought education, so that it wasn't just education, it was religion: They both came hand-in-hand. So that for my father, for example, who was born in 1932 and who started to go to school in eastern Nigeria in 1936, you didn't just go to learn math, and English and science, you also learned that Jesus was Lord and everything your parents were doing at home was evil and demonic and all of that. And so now we have a generation of educated Africans who are also very Christianized. [And] not only Christianized, because I think it's possible to be Christianized and still have a respect for other traditions, but many of them don't because their version of Christianity — their God — was one in which to be Christian meant to not only reject, but demonize, traditional religion. So many people in my father's generation think that what their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers did was evil, or they use interesting words like heathen and pagan."
This week on Alt.Latino, we tackle the growing pile of new records sitting on our desks, unopened. Throughout February, in honor of Black History Month, we brought you shows that focus on Afro-Latino history. This week, we shift gears and do something else we love to do: kick back and relax with some fresh jams.
We've got great music for you: a remake by rising Dominican star Jarina De Marco, an explosive cut off Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux's new album, a track with killer vocals by La Santa Cecilia, and a song from Calle 13's new record, Multi_Viral. As an added bonus, Calle 13 frontman Rene Perez Joglar joins us to discuss the project and describe what it's like to be one of the most beloved and controversial artists in contemporary Latin America.
So come join us for great music and conversation — and, as always, let us know what you've been listening to these days.
His name is attached to a surgery that has saved many major league pitchers' careers.
But Tommy John knows that's an honor he came by thanks in large part to good luck.
"Fortunately for me, I was at the right place at the right time," he told All Things Considered host Melissa Block on Friday. "I happened to have one of the greatest surgeons of all time being the surgeon for the Los Angeles Dodgers."
That would be Dr. Frank Jobe, who died Thursday at the age of 88.
It was Sept. 25, 1974, when Jobe took a tendon from John's forearm and used it to repair John's left elbow. The Dodgers pitcher, a left-hander, had ruptured his medial collateral ligament — an injury that at the time meant the end for any pitcher's major league career.
Jobe told him, John says, that the chances of his ever pitching again were "less than 5 percent." But a year later, John was throwing again in an instructional league game. He would go on to pitch for 14 more seasons in the big leagues, compiling a career record of 288 wins to 231 losses. After the Dodgers, he pitched for the then-California Angels and the New York Yankees.
While he was lucky to have Jobe as his surgeon, John also believes the surgeon was lucky to have a stubborn athlete as a patient. John was more than willing to have the surgery and to do the rehabilitation work that followed.
As for his friend, anyone who met Jobe, says John, "would think he was just some mild-mannered person from Greensboro, N.C."
Jobe would say, his most famous patient remembers, " 'I'm not a great surgeon, but I have the best patients in the world.' "
Much more from John's conversation about Jobe is due on Friday's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.
For much more about "Tommy John surgery," a good place to start is this package of stories from the Los Angeles Times' Bleacher Report. In includes a video about "how the surgery is done."
Conservatives can't stand Harry Reid.
The Senate majority leader is under steady attack from Republicans for calling the Koch brothers, billionaire funders of conservative causes, "un-American." His Senate colleagues across the aisle criticize his stewardship in unusually sharp terms.
Recognizing a rich vein, New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie took on the Nevada Democrat Thursday during his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Harry Reid should get back to work and stop picking on great Americans," Christie said.
Reid's habit of attacking political opponents in highly charged and personal ways has all kinds of Republican pundits and politicians slamming him, accusing the veteran senator of "McCarthyism" and calling him "detestable" or even "the worst living human being on the planet."
It's gotten to the point where getting rid of Reid and taking the Senate agenda out of his control is emerging as a talking point for GOP candidates this year.
"He's certainly a symbol of most of what's wrong with Washington these days," says David Ray, communications director for Republican Rep. Tom Cotton's Arkansas Senate campaign. "We're not going to have a conservative majority as long as Harry Reid is running things."
There's just one problem: It's not clear that enough voters have even heard of Reid to make him into a useful target for Republicans nationwide.
"I don't think that Harry Reid is a particularly scary character to ordinary folks," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. "About half the population probably knows who he is."
No Politics Is Local
It's become common in recent election cycles for one party to villify and lambaste the leaders of the other, to say that a vote for Candidate X is a vote for Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.
It's a sign both of how polarized the country is and how nationalized House and Senate races have become.
"You can make the case that the Tip O'Neill trope, 'all politics is local,' has changed," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a website run by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If it was ever true, it's less true now than it was."
Republicans believe they have an especially ripe target in Reid. A Gallup poll last fall showed that Reid's job approval rating stood at 33, compared to 53 percent who disapproved — the worst showing among current congressional leaders (although not by much).
Reid was called out by Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, in his CPAC address on Thursday.
"Can you believe this guy?" McConnell said. "Reid has spent two weeks calling people whose lives have been upended by Obamacare liars."
Liars And Losers
McConnell was referring to Reid's recent assertion that the claims from people in ads funded by Americans for Prosperity — a Koch-backed organization — were false. Those individuals had said they were personally harmed by the Affordable Care Act, including a Michigan woman with leukemia.
Reid's decision to criticize a cancer patient by name on the Senate floor — with cause, by some accounts — was denounced by numerous Republicans. His more recent charges against the Koch brothers have turned up the noise.
"If Harry Reid were a 'real man' he'd zip his lips disparaging Americans from the Senate floor," Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, tweeted Wednesday.
Reid's latest volleys follow a long list of provocative statements, including his claim during the 2012 campaign that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hadn't paid his taxes for 10 years, or the time in 2005 he called President George W. Bush a "loser."
Getting Rid Of Harry
That scorched earth approach led Fox host Greta Van Susteren to suggest that Reid should step down from his leadership post because he is a "bully."
Republicans would just as soon force him out by taking control of the Senate this fall. "Folks understand that a vote for Mary Landrieu, Mark Udall, Kay Hagan or Mark Begich is a vote for more of the same broken promises, failed policies and Washington dysfunction," says Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Indeed, many of the Republicans running against those incumbent Democratic senators have complained not only about them but about Reid himself.
In a recent telephone town hall, Rep. Bill Cassidy, Landrieu's main opponent in Louisiana, didn't mention her and instead focused on Reid. Thom Tillis, who is running against Hagan in North Carolina, accused her of pushing Reid's policies when he officially filed as a Senate candidate last week.
Enough Of A Target?
Republicans have been trying to make Reid into a bogeyman for a long time. Yet no matter what complaints they lodge against him, he has kept his grip on power.
Reid appears totally unfazed by the idea that Republicans are once again targeting him.
"Most people don't know who I am," he told Politico in an interview published Thursday.
Most people who have hostile views of him are probably Republicans anyway, says Jacobson, the UCSD political scientist. Attacking Reid isn't going to change many minds.
But it can be a useful tactic nonetheless.
"You can think of it as motivating turnout," Jacobson says. "In red states where you have a Democratic senator who is working with Harry Reid, it's a way of reminding people that their senators are Democrats."
And, if Reid doesn't help turn out the vote, Republicans are counting on another, better-known villain — the president.
"Harry Reid and Senate Democrats are a tool or a proxy for President Obama," says Hougesen, the NRSC press secretary.