In my eighth-grade Global Thinking course, the first homework assignment of the year is for students to watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie weaves together her personal story of growing up in Nigeria and moving to the United States for college with a provocative discussion on the nature of stories and storytelling. She calls attention to “the danger of a single story.” In short, defining an experience based on a single account gives us incomplete, potentially damaging understandings of other people.
Adichie’s words of caution are an important reminder of the very sacred and noble responsibility we have as teachers to tell stories well and to teach our students how to read and understand others’ stories. Adichie is particularly sensitive to how power shapes which stories we tell and how we tell them, defining power as “the ability not to just tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Adichie sees stereotypes as complicit in the perpetuation of single stories: “[T]he problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Adichie also reminds us of “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”
Single Stories in the Classroom
Adichie’s phrase—the danger of a single story—gives my students a simple, direct way to begin developing their sensitivity to narrative and power. Students begin the year attuned to one-sided viewpoints, biases and unheard stories. With Adichie’s urging, they may think about whose perspective is being served by the way a particular story is heard.
I often find that students want to chalk up divergent opinions to “different perspectives” rather than investigating the accuracy of a story. Adichie moves my students away from this kind of reduction because she helps them see that the danger of a single story lies not in reference to a different perception of the facts, but in reference to the story’s and storyteller’s legitimacy and authenticity. In doing so, it opens up conversations about the ways in which history is a composite of stories—some true, some not, some unheard, promulgated or silenced by those in power—and require rigorous interrogation in the classroom.
Single Stories and Judgment
After students watch “The Danger of a Single Story,” I ask them to discuss what stuck out to them. They appreciate the story of Fide, Adichie’s family houseboy, whose poverty a young Adichie always contrasted with her own middle-class Nigerian existence until she visited his home and saw the beauty of a basket crafted by Fide’s brother. In relating these stories from her own experience, Adichie is liberating listeners, my students, to acknowledge their own “single stories” without judgment. This is true even for Adichie: Many people’s limited knowledge of Africa has limited their perceptions of her. Still, she switches the locus of blame away from the individual and toward the stories they have heard and the people who have told them.
Adichie’s rhetorical shift is subtle but important. It’s a call for us as teachers to tell multiple stories or risk perpetuating stereotypes and limited knowledge. And yet, it also moves us away from guilt about having single stories and toward an activist stance of open-mindedness and receptivity to multiple narratives.
Adichie’s talk has served as a framing “text” for my courses for years, and it never fails to activate students while introducing them to the ways we will study the various stories of history.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.