The Power of a Single Story

Posted by Stephanie Carrillo on June 14, 2013

2013-06-13 14.11.31A snapshot from a Facing History seminar. During the summer, we lead educator seminars for three to five days at a time. Stephanie Carrillo visited our Holocaust and Human Behavior seminar this week and brings us this story.

There's a TED Talk I've been showing my students for the last couple of years called "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Adichie. In this amazing TED Talk, Adichie warns us how stereotypes are formed, prejudices take root, and discriminatory behaviors occur when "one story" is told about a group of people with whom we have limited contact or understanding. Although it is convenient to accept a single narrative as a "universal truth" to be applied to all members of a group, it is very dangerous. So dangerous and powerful, in fact, that entire genocides have been committed using this very tactic.

When we consider the propaganda manufactured by Nazi Germany against the Jews, there's no doubt as to the "single story" the Third Reich wished to tell. The message, repeatedly relayed in all forms of media to all sectors of society, was that the Jews were not human and must be exterminated if Germany was to survive. A powerful, state-sanctioned "single story" if there ever was one. In the Holocaust and Human Behavior seminar, we grappled with this reality: that a government engineered a technologically efficient system to commit mass murder and that countless people set aside their humanity long enough to carry out the extermination of millions.

2013-06-13 14.12.07When we take this understanding in, and fully allow ourselves to comprehend the profound sadness and horror of this chapter in human history, it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Teachers began to ask questions of themselves such as, "Those people back then were unable to prevent the Holocaust, what makes me think that I can stop a future tragedy, or impart upon my students the belief that they can make a difference?" Some participants in the seminar seemed to be weighted by the gravity of the past, nearly drowned by the enormity of it all. One teacher sat in stunned silence and finally remarked, "You know, I just can't wrap my head around this." And in truth, we can't. The numbers are so shocking and the statistics so numbing, the scope and depth of the Holocaust is nearly impossible to comprehend. Impossible, that is, until you hear a "single story." Not the story of the Holocaust, but one.

2013-06-13 12.10.00Hava Ben-Zvi shared her story of survival with us, and in sharing her experience of living through the Holocaust, she saved everyone in the room. What did she save us from? From feelings of despair and hopelessness. From the voices in our heads that sneered at us and said we couldn't make a difference. From any acceptance of our powerlessness we might have had. She saved us from thinking that the Holocaust was an unstoppable force in history and she made us realize that the Final Solution was never fully realized due to the actions of one upstander and one survivor at a time. Hava's story, her "single story", will have a profound impact on me. In sharing her story, Hava presents herself not just as a survivor and a living record of a past tragedy but also asserts herself as a continuous participant in the fight against injustice.

When I think of the personal story of survival Hava Ben-Zvi shared that afternoon, and the various stories we read later in the day of individual resisters during the Holocaust, I'm reminded of a quote by Barry Lopez: "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each others' memory. This is how people care for themselves."

What are the personal stories you've heard that spoke deeply to you? How have other people's stories informed or guided your own life? Have you ever shared a story that made an impact on someone else?

For another Facing History teacher's take on using "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Adichie, click here.

Topics: Choosing to Participate, Holocaust and Human Behavior

Welcome to Learn+Teach+Share

This blog helps Southern California teachers connect directly with each other, share ideas, and learn about new resources and opportunities for those interested in or already implementing Facing History.

Learn More:  

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts