Why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ is so Important

In this TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about how dangerous it is to buy into a single story of a person or nation. The Nigerian feminist writer talks about herself growing up in Nigeria with mostly Western literature available, which led to her realising only much later in life that she as an African woman could also appear in stories by reading the few African books available at that time.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, […] I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.”

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realised that people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognised.”

She additionally talks about her experience of studying and living abroad in the US, where she often encountered people who upon their first meeting only viewed her through the incomplete stories they were told about African people (e.g. poverty, no English language skills, Aids etc.). In general this behaviour leads to not facing people on equal terms and comes across as dehumanising as it flattens the image of a person, making them look one-dimensional. Chimamanda says that she herself did this as well several times throughout her life as she bought into the single stories of different people and nations by whatever image of these people was presented to her in the media and news as a kid and later as an adult. She talks about her first visit to Mexico and how ashamed she was about her single-minded image of Mexicans

But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. […] I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.”

I remember walking around […]  watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame. I realised that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.”

Power, in this case especially the power of the West, decides about how often a story is told and what kind of story it is, thus leading to incomplete stereotypes. The media has an immense influence on our views, opinions and perceptions of other people, often subconsciously. To fully engage with a culture or person one has to know all the stories and not only one. She speaks of creating a fair balance of stories and mentions several workshops and projects she organises for her people back home in Nigeria.

“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.”

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

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