And while her clever use of social media may be modern, her thinking is decidedly influenced by religion and old-school manners. She laments how social media has escalated our lack of civility, for example.
“People are prospering from being unapologetically offensive, trite and stupid,” she writes. “And we are tweeting ourselves into high blood pressure and ulcers trying to tell them to do better. … Being a pompous nut biscuit is now a publicity strategy, and I don’t know what we can do to end the madness.”
“Humor is this great equalizer,” Ms. Ajayi said recently over noodles at a dive Thai restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. “It gets people’s defenses down, and once they’re down, you can discuss some really difficult topics.”
For the most part, Ms. Ajayi, 31, saves her outrage (threaded with humor) for the page. While she has always been “goofy,” she said, and her writing is merely a slightly better organized version of her stream of consciousness, in person she is serious, shy and unassuming. She was immaculate in black and red, sporting one of the graphic T-shirts she favors because they get a reaction from people. This one has a photo of Michael Jackson with the word “Mood.”
She will always wear or carry something red, because red is her signature. When she started an H.I.V./AIDS awareness organization in 2009 that runs workshops around the country about its impact on women, she called it the Red Pump project because “shoes are my love language, and women love shoes.” More to the point, she said, “H.I.V. is a critical issue to women of color.”
She started the project when she met someone who had 20 cousins living with their grandmother because their parents had died of AIDS-related causes.
“If I have a contribution to make, it’s to get people to think hard truths, even when it’s difficult,” Ms. Ajayi said. Not that she disparages the importance of online activism, “but you have to understand that activism needs to go offline, too. You can be tweeting strangers and saying, ‘Don’t say that,’ but are you saying that to your friends? How about your mom? Your boyfriend at the dinner table who says something homophobic? If you’re not saying the same things in person that you’re saying online, then what are your tweets doing?”
Ms. Ajayi does not talk in detail about her life offline. Asked about a partner, she laughs and says, “I can neither confirm nor deny,” though she does show her supreme intelligence by noting she would never date a writer. Right now, she is focused on her book tour, which she has also branded. She handed out a Judgy Pop, the red lollipop on the cover of her book, to remember her by.
Ms. Ajayi was raised in a well-to-do family in Nigeria and moved to Chicago in 1994 with her mother and siblings. One of her most eye-opening chapters is about what she considers America’s distorted and monolithic view of Africa, a continent with “more languages and cultures than I can count,” as one large bastion of poverty and pestilence where children are covered in dust and “the flies buzzing around their heads are the mascots.” And, she points out, those Nigerian princes who need your bank account information? That image of Nigeria is sort of like deciding you know everything there is about Italians from watching “The Godfather.”
“Nigerians are everywhere you want to be,” Ms. Ajayi said. “If you’re leaving your country for a better opportunity, you also come in with this extra reserve of, ‘I have to make it, I don’t have any other choice.’ So people come here who are doctors over there, and then become cabdrivers here because their degrees don’t work. But give them 10 years, and they’re back to being doctors.”
Ms. Ajayi went to the same high school as “Shelley” (that would be Michelle Obama), then to the University of Illinois. Being an “on the ground” person, she thought she would become a doctor. She ended up with her first D in chemistry and realized, “I don’t even like hospitals.” Instead, she majored in psychology and worked in marketing and branding. For years, she had full-time jobs and blogging was a hobby, albeit one that kept her writing into the night. In 2010, when she was laid off from her last job at a nonprofit — teaching other nonprofits how to use social media to tell their stories — she said she felt the universe was trying to tell her something.
The blog, along with some web and marketing consulting, became her job. (She has about 500,000 visitors to her site and Twitter followers combined.) Finally, she felt she could call herself a writer. She’d been asked several times to do a book but had no ideas until one day she discovered that someone had lifted a section of her blog and published it as his own work with no attribution. She hunted him down. He said he didn’t know this wasn’t cool, and she tweeted and she tweeted, asking in essence: Did some of us get a limited-edition handbook that others didn’t get? You know, the one that gives instructions on not being a jerk?
“So yeah, literally, I knew that was the book I needed to write,” she said.