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Learning to Read and the Danger of a Single Story by Malcolm X and Adichie

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Malcolm X’s passage, “Learning to Read” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech, “The Danger of a Single Story” are attempts to explain how incomplete information can affect the portrayal of a specific group of people. Both authors seek to help their audience find the truth behind veiled stories using a specific tone. However, in order to do this effectively, Malcolm X chose to use facts and the harsh history of blacks to express the importance of knowledge, while Chimamanda uses a mix of personal guilt and experience to explain why diverse stories are necessary. The purpose of Malcolm X’s passage is to demonstrate that without the ability to read, a basis for knowledge, it is difficult to form your own moral beliefs. On the other hand, Chimamanda’s speech warns of the dangers in creating different versions of a single story.

To help their audiences find the whole story, both Malcolm X and Chimamanda approached this using different tones. Malcolm X’s tone in the passage, “Learning to Read” started out as relaxing and calm but shifted to angry and vengeful as he gained the ability to understand the books he read in prison. Malcolm X states that he was “so fascinated” about what he was learning about in the dictionary. His tone showed that it was an inspiration to learn to read despite being a black male in America. He later goes on to say that “Toynbee is among those who have helped to bleach history” and that “the truth is coming to light”. This tone turned into a political call against the “white man’s” actions toward black people. Chimamanda’s tone when giving her speech, “The Danger of a Single Story”, starts humble as she is learning about the effects of the single stories that plagued her childhood. However, this tone shifts during certain stories. When a student apologized for “the abusive men in Nigeria”, the tone of her response was admittedly “irritated” because that student had a single story that controlled their view of Nigerian men. The aggressive tone used by Malcolm X, in comparison to Chimamanda, showed that the message he wanted to convey to his audience was extremely important, and he was very passionate about the change he wanted to see.

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While tone is important when sending a message, the details used to persuade the audience is equally important. Malcolm X used facts and black history to give his point the most impact it could have. He spoke about the history of black men and how the history books have been changed or “bleached” in order to tell only one side of the story. He goes on to write about the influence of Mr. Muhammad’s teachings and that any person, whether they followed Mr. Muhammad or not, would have heard about it. Elijah Muhammad was a popular muslim religious leader and writing about him added a lot more relatability to Malcolm’s purpose. Chimamanda’s approach was one dipped in personal stories and overall self growth. She spoke about her personal guilt when she realized that she held a compressed view of a broad situation. She talked about how her helper’s family was poor but she never considered them to be anything more because all she heard from her mother is the word “poor”. She shows her growth and overall understanding when she talks about the moments that helped her change her views on a specific type of people. She tells the audience about traveling to Mexico and that she had a preconceived view of how they were because of the stories she had heard in America, but felt ashamed after arriving and seeing those people for herself. Chimamanda and Malcolm both use personal story build-up, from childhood to maturity, to help their audience understand the significance of their purpose.

Malcolm and Chimamanda’s purpose are ultimately the same as they both want to see change in their audience. Malcolm’s purpose is to help the audience understand that even if the information is in front of you, you must be able to understand it before you can move to change. He does this by writing about being unable to read and how he overcame this because of self-motivation. He adds on to that fact by showing the severity of everything he learned about oppression, slavery, and how far white people will go to cover it up. He writes that he was “shocked” he was when he read about “slavery’s total horror”. Chimamanda’s purpose was showing how dangerous different versions of a single story can be and to understand that it is important to reach deeper for the truth. She speaks about people not understanding other cultures and going with the overall picture that was painted with bias. She talks about her own bias towards others and that she was not proud of it and decided to dig deeper and uncover the truth for herself.

In conclusion, Malcolm’s approach to the change he is seeking is similar with Chimamanda’s. Malcolm uses personal stories and shows his personal growth through his better understanding of the information that was presented to him. The tone that Chimamanda uses is different from Malcolm’s as it is more humble in comparison to his aggressive tone. Their overall purpose of seeking change is the same. However, it is unfortunate that Malcolm X was unable to hear Chimamanda’s speech before writing “Learning to Read”, because his passion against all white people led to the creation of a biased one-sided story. In his writing, he writes only negatively about white people, never once giving a situation where white people were good. He created a bias in his anger and while it is unintended, it shows the importance of Chimamanda’s message to her audience. Initially, Malcolm’s message to his audience seems more important due to his tone and aggressiveness but when it is seen from another view, it shows that his facts and stories of white people can be interpreted as multiple versions of a single story. 

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