I had my first class of my second semester in DeKalb. The walls were covered in skulls and skeletons. Welcome to the Anthropology department. And it was wonderful. The professor was engaging and passionate and the subject seems fascinating. We watched a TED video featuring Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adachie. And it was incredible.
Adachie talked about the dangers of the single story. She talked about growing up middle class in Nigeria and the perceptions we can often get about people when we reduce their complexities down to a single story. For example, they had a boy who worked in their house and growing up all she knew about his family back in the village was that they were poor. She only knew their story as one of poverty and only told a story of pity. Then one day, her family went to visit them and she saw a beautifully weaved raffia basket that the boy’s older brother had made. She was shocked because she had not once stopped to think of them as anything but a poor family in need of her pity. But instead, they were poor, but hardworking complex individuals with immense artistic talent and creativity.
In the same way, when Adachie came to the United States to attend college, her first roommate was perplexed by her. She questioned where Adachie had learned to speak English so well, not knowing that English is the official language of Nigeria. She assumed Adachie would not know even simple things like how to use a stove. She had been told a single story of Africa: the story of poverty and ignorance. That single story kept her from realizing the rich complexities of the Nigerian people, the diversity in socioeconomic status throughout the continent, and the variety of experiences that each person lives through.
Adachie noted that power is not only the ability to tell the story of others, but to tell it as the definitive story of their lives. We reduce people down to a single story, to a concept, to white or black, gay or straight, male or female, rich or poor, and we lose the beautiful complexity that makes life worthwhile. Its not that these stories are necessarily wrong, but merely that they are insufficient. Often they may be wrong. We may write someone off as a particular story to demean them or weaken them. But often, we just refuse to learn or are never told the rich variety of stories that exist in each culture, each land, each heart. And thus we miss the world as it really is.
Please, tell me your story. Tell me all of them. They are undeniably important. For both of us.