Today in English, we had the awesome opportunity (awesome for me at least), of watching a TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of Purple Hibiscus. She was an early reader and as a result, an early writer. She says that her writing almost exactly mimicked those of the stories she read. In her stories, like those of the British ones she read, the characters “talked a lot about the weather and how lovely it was that the sun had come out,” and her characters drank ginger beer regardless of fact that she as an author had never had Ginger Beer. This early foray into the worlds of reading and writing showed her how impressionable and vulnerable we, as children and possibly as adults, are to stories. Adichie specifically formed the impression that books must be about things with which she could not identify, that they must contain foreign aspects. All that changed when she started reading “African” literature like Chinua Achebe and she saw that a girl like her could exist in literature.
Just as the few actual stories she read had led Adichie to form an impression of books in general, stories that were passed on by mouth, and media-fueled stories also created opinions. In her TED talk, Adichie talks about how at an early age she was exposed to the danger of a SINGLE story. Her family was a typical, middle-class, Nigerian family meant that they had servants. Adichie says that her mother also chastised them for leaving behind food on their plates, that she would make them feel guilty for wasting when families like their servants’ had nothing in comparison. This conditioned her so that whenever she thought of the servants, all she thought of was “poor.” Her perceptions all changed when she visited one of the servant’s families one day and to her surprise found that they’d made a beautiful quilt. This shocked her because she’d been accustomed to seeing them as nothing but poor and hadn’t fathomed that they were able to make anything. The tables turned on a Adichie in college when her roommate asked her naïve questions about her “tribal music and how she’d learned English so well.” The roommate had a sort of patronizing, well-intentioned pity towards Adichie, because she assumed that Adichie was from “backwards Nigeria” and did not know “normal” things like how to use a stove. These uninformed thoughts on blacks and Africans came straight from Western literature. English merchant, John Locke, called them “Beasts who have no houses. They are also people who have no heads, having their mouths and eyes in their breasts.” Nowadays, we can see the outrageousness in these claims that are based in no facts, and influence by no reality. This description, along with others like Rudyard Kipling’s “half-devil, half child” comparison, started the tradition of negative perception towards African countries.
“Show a people as one thing, over and over again and that is what they become,” says Adichie. Stories have enormous power, and the single story contains lots of negative muscle. In Adichie’s words, “If you want to dispossess someone, tell their story and start with the second part. Start the story with the failure of the African states, not with their creation by the British and you have a completely different story.“ It’s all about how you look at it. “Single stories,” says Adichie, “are not untrue, just incomplete.” For every negative story, there’s an un-catastrophic, positive one. Having single negative stories flattens the experience, makes it devoid of richness, happiness and diversity. Unlike most writers, Adichie had a relatively happy childhood. But sprinkled among the sunshine and flowers were morsels of unhappiness: she grew up with a repressive government that undervalued education, watched certain items of food slowly disappear from the dinner table, and lived in an almost constant state of normalized political fear. But Adichie uses these experiences in support of the quote, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “The consequence of the single story,” according to Adichie, “is that it robs people of dignity. Stories matter…they can empower and dehumanize; they can break dignity as well as repair it.”
Adichie ended her talk with this impactful quote, “When we reject the single story, we regain a kind of paradise.” To reject the single story is to hear and know all sides. There’s always a flip side to every story. With the aim of finding this flip side and avoiding the single story, my English class and I are researching about the individual facets of Nigeria and its culture throughout the ages. I’m looking forward to reaching a kind of paradise. See you all on the flip side!