The Danger of a Single Story: Why ELA Classrooms Matter

I have wanted to write this post for awhile, as I’ve loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie since the moment I learned about her and her work.  Adichie is an incredible author who was born and raised in Nigeria and has written several novels and short stories that have been published in over 30 languages.  She is an articulate and talented individual; she uses her identity and skillsets to create beautiful work, but also to actively promote values and ideals she holds important.  I could spend an overwhelming number of words describing her books, talks, and life accomplishments and I’d actually be happy to do that, but, I wanted to dedicate this particular blog post to a TED talk that Adichie gave in July of 2009.

In her talk, Adichie reflects on the danger of only knowing one story, one narrative, or one perspective.  She shares how growing up with a “single story” depicted in the literature she read hindered her own ability to express her culture and life as a child in Nigeria.  As an adult, the “single story” myth caused her to accidentally develop one-dimensional and inaccurate images of peoples foreign to her.  Coming out of those experiences, Adichie poses the questions: How can we really know anyone through a single story?  How can a single story ever capture the complexity of a culture, a people, or a nation?

Adichie goes on to push this one step further by analyzing how the myth of the single story not only puts the hearer or reader in the position of having an incomplete or simplistic impression of people or places; it also heavily represses and misrepresents the individuals depicted.

‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.’ – Adichie

This TED talk captures, in essence, what I believe to be the most important role of the ELA classroom: to teach students to demand multiple stories, to question suspiciously unified narratives, and to embrace the duality and complexity that comes with gathering information about the unfamiliar.  Developing students who insist on more stories and refuse to accept any single story as representative of a people or a place not only respects and honors our increasingly diverse classrooms and societies; it also creates the kinds of citizens our increasingly complex world needs.  I want my classroom to produce individuals who have meaningfully read white, Western literature, but who have also wrestled with female, multicultural authors and who have considered the multitude of perceptions that exist in any given topic.  These are the students who will be able to operate meaningfully, intelligently, and justly throughout our globalized society.  These are the students who will hear, respect, and respond to voices speaking for and from all classes, races, and genders.  These are the students that I make it my goal to cultivate.

“I would like to end with this thought: That 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.” -Adichie

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