Whether we're conscious of it or not, stories influence our understanding of other people and places. In July 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk presentation about her experiences as related to her concept of the 'single story.' Adichie describes the 'single story' as a narrative that presents only one perspective, repeated again and again. She asserts that the danger of the 'single story' is that it can result in perspectives based on stereotypes.
The Single Story in Context
Adichie grew up in Nigeria. In her presentation, she describes herself as a long-time storyteller and early reader. The children's books that were available to her then were British and American. They had characters who had blonde hair and blue eyes. They talked about the weather and drank ginger beer. When Adichie started writing, her characters and plots matched those in these stories, even though her own everyday life didn't resemble this. She says that while these stories 'stirred her imagination,' they also gave her a 'single story of what books are.' When she discovered African stories through authors like Chinua Achebe, the 'father of African literature,' she realized that books can be about the places and characters that she recognized - those with the 'skin color of chocolate' and 'kinky hair.'
Adichie left Nigeria at the age of 19 to go to college in the United States. When she arrived, she discovered that her American roommate had already formed ideas about Adichie based on a 'single story.' The roommate was surprised to find that Adichie knew how to speak English and how to use a stove because she came from Africa. As Adichie explains, her roommate's 'single story' of Africa was one of catastrophe rather than diversity.
Adichie uses this experience to address how the single story of Africa came to be, pointing to Western literature, which is prose and poetry written by authors from North America and Europe. The image of Africa in Western literature is one of beautiful landscapes, exotic animals, and people who fight senseless wars, live in poverty, and die from AIDS. In these stories, Africans do not have voices of their own and are waiting to be saved by 'kind, white foreigners.' This single story of Africa has been told so often that not only did Adichie's roommate believe it, but so did one of her college professors. When Adichie presented a story to him that she had set in Lagos, her professor told her that the characters were not 'authentically African' because they were educated and drove cars. He couldn't conceive of Africans who weren't starving and didn't need to be saved.
Stereotypes & the 'Single Story'
These descriptions of Adichie's experience with the single story led to her main point in the talk: a single story is created when a story presents a group of 'people as one thing' and as 'only one thing, over and over again.' As a result, 'that is what they become.' And not only that, but who tells these stories, the ways these stories are told, and how many of these stories are told depend on power. She defines power as the 'ability to not just tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.'
Adichie explains that the danger of the single story is that it 'creates stereotypes' and that these 'stereotypes are not untrue,' but 'they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.' Adichie claims that this one version of a story 'robs people of dignity' and emphasizes difference instead of equality among people. To fight the stereotypes created by the single story, Adichie argues that we should reject it and strive for what Chinua Achebe called 'a balance of stories.' While stories do have the power to 'break the dignity of a people,' she emphasizes that they also have the power to 'humanize' and 'to repair that broken dignity.' Adichie ends her TED talk by stating, 'When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.'
Analysis of the TED Talk
You may be wondering after hearing this summary, 'How does this impact me? Why is her argument relevant to my life?'
Adichie's underlying point is that narratives are a major part of our lives, whether they're stories about friends and family, fictional tales in novels or television shows, or news reports. She's arguing that we need to question those stories and integrate them into a wider, more diverse world-view. You can ask yourself questions when you encounter any narrative and put it in a more realistic context to get a better impression of the truth. Some of these questions might be:
- Who is telling the story?
- How is the story being told?
- How many times is the story presented in a similar way?
- What's being left out of the story?
- How is the story influencing the way I see the world?
The point here is to think critically about the stories that are presented to us and to avoid assuming that they represent the whole truth.
Let's review what we've learned about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses her experiences as a reader and author to uncover the hidden influence of stories on our world-view. Some cultures have the benefit of telling multiple stories about themselves and are not defined by a 'single story', which is a narrative that presents only one perspective, repeated again and again - but other cultures aren't as fortunate. Western literature, prose and poetry from European and North American authors, seems to convey a 'single story' of Africans. As educated critical thinkers, we need to be aware of the 'single story' and how it influences us, and how these stories can result in stereotypes. Adichie asserts that narratives have power, which she defines as the ability to not just tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. Therefore, according to Adichie, we need to examine them closely.
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