The Danger of a Single Story

Chimamanda

 

The “Danger of a Single Story”, a 2009 TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a young Nigerian author, provides a powerful tool for the Facing History classroom. In the twenty minute video, Adichie describes the powerful impression the multitude of British stories made on her as a young girl growing up in Nigeria. She argues that inherent in the power of stories, is a danger—the danger of only knowing one story about a group. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Africa-not-a-single-story-posterAdichie recounts speaking to an American student who, after reading her novel centered on an abusive male protagonist, lamented the fact that Nigerian men were abusive. Having just read American Psycho, Adichie returns his pity, and calls it a shame that “all young American men are serial killers.” The TED audience laughs at the absurdity of this generalization and her point is clear: on a micro-level, the danger of a single story is that it prevents people from authentically connecting with people as individuals. On a macro-level, the issue is really about power: almost by definition, there are many stories about the dominant culture so the single-story threatens to create stereotypes that stick to groups that are already disempowered.

After seeing this twenty minute video, I knew I wanted to share it with students. I’ve observed that Africa is often students’ default example of human tragedy—“starving children”, “war-torn societies” and other scenes of deprivation and scarcity are conflated with “Africa.” Adichie is articulate, insightful, empowered and engaging—I knew that just seeing her speak would shatter some stereotypes that students hold which oversimplify “Africa” and lump all Africans together.

Adichie’s video raises questions that fit directly with Facing History’s scope and sequence. Facing History begins with an exploration of identity with questions such as “Who am I?” “To what extent am I able to define myself?” “What labels do others place on me?” Defining oneself and the groups to which one belongs often means distinguishing “us” from “them.” As Rudyard Kipling writes “All the people like us are We and everyone else is They.” (Click here for Kipling’s poem, “We and They”) Adichie’s TED Talk shows how this “we/they” dichotomy is established. The We/They divide is an enduring theme which you can use in any humanities classroom.

I chose to use it in my eighth grade Global Studies course as a way to reflect after last quarter’s major assignment: a lengthy interview with a person from another country. This assignment is a part of a year-long “Country Project” where students choose one developing nation to investigate in depth. During the third quarter, students developed questions; scheduled, conducted, and recorded the personal interview. This goal of the interview was to move students beyond the statistics and facts they had researched about the country as well as to develop their interpersonal and interviewing skills.

The culminating assessment was a reflective essay about the lessons and content learned from the interviewing process. The students’ reflections revealed “aha moments.” For example, in her essay Ashley wrote of her great revelation that Chipotle was not “real” Mexican food and, to her surprise, burritos were an American concoction with roots in California. This felt like progress; but though I was encouraged at the baby-steps, I also realized that students might have trouble discerning the opinion of one Mexican person from a fuller picture of Mexico. Each student gained so much respect for the life story of the person they interviewed, that this person became the authority on anything about the country. I could see how new knowledge could be greatly over-simplified and generalized. I decided to complicate my students’ thinking by introducing “The Danger of a Single Story.”

The Lesson:

  1. I asked students to spend five minutes doing a free-write (journal-entry) about “The Power of a Single Story.” 
  2. I just put the topic on the board and asked them to write about whatever came to mind. I stressed that this was not about correct grammar or spelling and that they should just let their thoughts flow.
  3. Students shared out that a single story can inspire, it can teach a lesson, provide a personal connection, build respect, or evoke emotions in a way that statistics and cold facts cannot.
  4. I told them that we were going to watch a video entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” This jolted some of the students because they were confident that single stories were so valuable.
  5. As they watched, I asked them just to listen and record the main points that Adichie makes.
  6. After the video finished, I had students spend three or four minutes talking to their partner about the main points and listing three “take-away points.”
  7. Students shared these and we connected it back to our own interviews.

My students were moved by the ideas. The simple message was clear: do not stereotype. But, they picked up on the nuance of all of her points. This video clearly has many classroom applications and I would love to hear from other Facing History teachers about how they envision using this resource in the classroom.

 

Click here to see another teacher’s take on short videos useful in the Facing History classroom, from our sister blog in Toronto: ONnetwork.facinghistory.org

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