Critique of the Danger of a Single Story

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Ms. Adichie’s speech is, prima facie, both a warning about the danger of construing peoples through a single story, and an appeal for holistic consideration. Fundamentally what she is seeking though, is equality through a plea to reorganize both the way stories about a culture are told and interpreted. Her contention that stories have been used to ‘dispossess and malign’, but also ‘empower and humanize’ people, conveys a conviction that storytelling is, if not the sole building block of history, a core component of its creation. This analysis of the ascent of cultures and their interpretation is necessarily unidimensional and superficial.

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Stereotypes, though generalizations with necessarily attendant exceptions, are generally true for most members of any stereotyped group. It is also wholly impractical for one to always consider all variables or stories of a place, people or thing when thinking about them – we simply do not have the time nor brain power for that kind of processing so that stereotypes are functionally useful. Africa is indeed a catastrophe relative to most nations and no amount of political correctness and spin in the narrative of Africa will bring about parity with developed nations.

Adichie betrays a failure to see that the single story, though it may have contributed in small part to the negative image of Africa, is not the substantive cause when she says ‘In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.’ She simply sees this image as a matter of storytelling. Africa is viewed as a catastrophe because it is. Many of its countries are characterized by military dictatorships, weak public institutions, tribal warfare, an epidemic of AIDS, lack of basic public infrastructure, general underdevelopment, unbearable poverty, etc.

Adichie makes the claim that stories or history is written and told by the victors or those with ‘power’. However, history is not a function of mere power as suggested by the author, a worldview infested with Marxist presuppositions, but of power earned through competence – the US being a shining example! Neither are power and respect ever had by asking for them from the powerful as the author has done in her speech. They must always be earned. Hierarchies in general, and in this specific context – of economic and political power on the world stage amongst states – are mostly a representation of gradations in competence. This is why countries like the USA, Canada and the UK control the world and write the history books. They all have democratic governments, rule of law, strong public institutions, diverse and strong economies, world class medical care and research…the list of positives is virtually inexhaustible. In other words, the narrative of a people is simply a general reflection of their actual reality.

It may be contented in retort that the US does not universally enjoy a glowing image, but that is due in large part to ignorance. Many of her nominal detractors risk life and limb to arrive on her shores. And many live in perpetual paranoia of being deported despite a panoply of negative claims. In this context, it is useful to note that people believe what they act out and not what they say.

Cultures do not gain prominence by mere storytelling, though it can undoubtedly work to augment success or do the reverse through the use of propaganda, as obtained between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, until the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26th, 1991. If Africans want to be taken seriously, they must refocus the analysis of their situation to the level of the individual. The individual is the true agent of change in any society as they are the core units of all groups. A prosperous economy, efficient, effective and honest government, a just legal system, modern health care, etc. cannot arise from a morally corrupt, lazy public. This applies with equal relevance to Guyana. We love to complain about politicians but are no better, and often worse in our own thought and conduct. All we need to become the very politicians we despise is the platform and power.

Despite the utility of awareness of the danger of a single story of peoples, it is much less dangerous than the simplistic and misguided idea that history can simply be, and is, made in the course of its writing. Adichie removes personal responsibility for the image and reality of Africa from the African individual, when this responsibility and ultimate agency to realize Africa’s immense potential ought to be reposed in the proper domain of the African individual. There must be a material reality beneath the narrative lending it legitimacy.

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