The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you
a few personal stories about what I like to call
“the danger of the single story.” I grew up on a university campus
in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started
reading at the age of two, although I think four
is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British
and American children’s books. I was also an early writer, and when I began to write,
at about the age of seven, stories in pencil
with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, 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, (Laughter) and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was
that the sun had come out. (Laughter) 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. My characters also drank
a lot of ginger beer, because the characters
in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea
what ginger beer was. (Laughter) And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire
to taste ginger beer. But that is another story. What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable
and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books
in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature
had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which
I could not personally identify. Now, things changed
when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available, and they weren’t quite as easy to find
as the foreign books. But because of writers like
Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift
in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write
about things I recognized. Now, I loved those
American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination.
They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know
that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers
did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story
of what books are. I come from a conventional,
middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often
come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight,
we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him
was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice,
and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner,
my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know?
People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family. Then one Saturday,
we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us
a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia
that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me
that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them
was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me
to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them. Years later, I thought about this
when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned
to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English
as its official language. She asked if she could listen
to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know
how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me
even before she saw me. Her default position
toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing,
well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. 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. I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up,
people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing
about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace
this new identity, and in many ways I think
of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable
when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being
my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement
on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India,
Africa and other countries.” (Laughter) So, after I had spent some years
in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand
my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa
were from popular images, I too would think that Africa
was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars,
dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved
by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans
in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide’s family. This single story of Africa ultimately
comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing
of a London merchant called John Lok, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating
account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans
as “beasts who have no houses,” he writes, “They are also
people without heads, having their mouth and eyes
in their breasts.” Now, I’ve laughed
every time I’ve read this. And one must admire
the imagination of John Lok. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling
African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa
as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words
of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are “half devil, half child.” And so, I began to realize
that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions
of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel
was not “authentically African.” Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things
wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined
that it had failed at achieving something
called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know
what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters
were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not
authentically African. But I must quickly add
that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. A few years ago,
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
on my first day in Guadalajara, 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 realized 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. So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. It is impossible to talk
about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about
the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates
to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined
by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told,
how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell
the story of another person, but to make it the definitive
story of that person. The Palestinian poet
Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it
is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows
of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with
the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial
creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. I recently spoke at a university where a student told me
that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel
called “American Psycho” — (Laughter) — and that it was such a shame that young Americans
were serial murderers. (Laughter) (Applause) Now, obviously I said this
in a fit of mild irritation. (Laughter) But it would never have
occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel
in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow
representative of all Americans. This is not because I am
a better person than that student, but because of America’s cultural
and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike
and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America. When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected
to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent
horrible things my parents had done to me. (Laughter) But the truth is that I had
a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love,
in a very close-knit family. But I also had grandfathers
who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because
he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends,
Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our fire trucks
did not have water. I grew up under repressive
military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes, my parents
were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam
disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind
of normalized political fear invaded our lives. All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only
these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other
stories that formed me. 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. Of course, Africa is a continent
full of catastrophes: There are immense ones,
such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply
for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories
that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just
as important, to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly
with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories
of that place and that person. The consequence
of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition
of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different
rather than how we are similar. So what if before my Mexican trip, I had followed the immigration
debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my mother had told us
that Fide’s family was poor and hardworking? What if we had an African
television network that broadcast diverse
African stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe
calls “a balance of stories.” What if my roommate knew
about my Nigerian publisher, Muhtar Bakare, a remarkable man who left
his job in a bank to follow his dream
and start a publishing house? Now, the conventional wisdom
was that Nigerians don’t read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people
who could read, would read, if you made literature affordable
and available to them. Shortly after he published my first novel, I went to a TV station
in Lagos to do an interview, and a woman who worked there
as a messenger came up to me and said, “I really liked your novel.
I didn’t like the ending. Now, you must write a sequel,
and this is what will happen …” (Laughter) And she went on to tell me
what to write in the sequel. I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary
masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in telling me
what to write in the sequel. Now, what if my roommate knew
about my friend Funmi Iyanda, a fearless woman who hosts
a TV show in Lagos, and is determined to tell the stories
that we prefer to forget? What if my roommate knew
about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos
hospital last week? What if my roommate knew
about contemporary Nigerian music, talented people singing
in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grandfathers. What if my roommate knew
about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria
to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get
their husband’s consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making
films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example
of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about
my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business
selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians
who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition? Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation
for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure,
our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive
despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach writing workshops
in Lagos every summer, and it is amazing to me
how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories. My Nigerian publisher and I
have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust, and we have big dreams
of building libraries and refurbishing libraries
that already exist and providing books for state schools that don’t have anything
in their libraries, and also of organizing lots
and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager
to tell our many stories. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used
to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used
to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair
that broken dignity. The American writer
Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives
who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life
that they had left behind. “They sat around,
reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book,
and a kind of paradise was regained.” I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that
there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  1. I have a Story to tell you about four people named EVERYBODY, SOMEBODY, ANYBODY and NOBODY. There was a Quality job to be done and EVERYBODY was asked to do it. EVERYBODY was sure SOMEBODY would do it. ANYBODY could have done it, but NOBODY did it. SOMEBODY got angry about that, because it was EVERYBODY's job. EVERYBODY thought ANYBODY could do it, but NOBODY realized that EVERYBODY wouldn't do it. It ended up that EVERYBODY blamed SOMEBODY when NOBODY did what ANYBODY could have done.
    At the end of the day, be responsible. Hold yourself ACCOUNTABLE. Let's focus on Intrinsic Factors, not always the Extrinsic Factors.

  2. U Tube are these thing true sorry I asked now I understand why truth being charged to make us look crazy lazy not wanting anything sad Linda j ☮️❤️ ❤️❤️💯 💯❤️❤️💯 💯

  3. They are created by not being helped sad I'm a 72 years old and reading this now hurts but I thank God for teaching me 🙏 to be greatful for his love Linda j ☮️❤️ ❤️💯 💯💯 💯

  4. Your first words is calling your mother a liar….I don't need to hear anything from you…all your characters were white…pathetic..

  5. What if people like this clear thinking, logical, brilliant human being taught me when I was young so that I could teach MY children so they could teach THEIRS?

    Since that wasn't my story, I will forward this to as many people as possible so that we no longer exist believing a single story

  6. I love this! It parallels the saying, "Until the Lion tells the story the hunter will always be glorified".

  7. No amount of preaching can change Black people. Those who want to build a better society should get on with it and lead by example. Cursing everyone and reminding them how much they are suffering makes no sense. Stop trying to wake up people who want to sleep.

  8. The roommate knows much success about Africans in Africa l guess but probably out of ignorance and envy is the result….

  9. Get over yourself and knock that big chip off your shoulder. There's no conspiracy by anybody wanting to project a 'single story' – jeez! People write about what they see and how it makes them feel. If they see a country/place/region full of poor people whose children muck around in the mud with their noses flowing and flies swarming about their face and their mummies walking around swinging their big breasts and their daddies leering and oggling from the sidelines, and crusty old men gathering to think up bizarre, painful rituals to subjugate young girls, I also would think that I am in the land of the devil!

  10. Thank you Chimamanda for your beautiful summation of the 'danger of a single story' concept. Your personal growth and experience was heartfelt and encouraging in many ways. Pecola

  11. So glad one of my students referred me to this TED Talk. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is mesmerizing, and her message is so necessary today in July 2019 when we hear the chant; "send them back." Should we adopt the single story of this chant, of these events? We CANNOT because we will feel such despair, and we will deny all the other stories that represent us !

  12. I come from kerala, a South Indian state and we have a chapter in 10th grade English textbook about this speech

  13. A God-inspired speech! Yes, the white man had the advantage of telling his story for centuries. The world is rapidly catching up with the truth, though. All the hate and vitriol, and the needless millions of death from white lies and white greed, all to promote his race as the superior race, when in fact he's been a murderer and a thief from the beginning. The white man took the black man's religion and made it his own. He turned every character white. What he didn't do was change the location of the origin of Christianity, and didn't destroy most of the black man's religious statues that were brought to Europe by the African people. Additionally, the white man has used religion to manipulate the masses for over 2000 years; he set himself up as God instead of God as God was revealed to the black race of people who first gave the white man knowledge. The world is indebted to the Black Egyptians as they are responsible for science, math, art, agriculture, literature, and almost everything else.

  14. There is only One story,Yahshua's story .He is the Lord God of Israel ,his story is supreme ,one,and only ,there is none beside him.

  15. Met someone who thought I did not know what a blender was 😁😁😁😁. Africans only grind food with rocks. Like blenders are so high tech most Africans have not seen one 😁😁

  16. I'm from Kazakhstan and people often assume that I have to be so awstruck in european cities because I obviously had lived in the middle of the steppe in a community of like 20 people. It makes me laugh before it makes me angry; funnily, I notice people from my country having the same type of stereotypes of Africa, South America, Eastern Asia and so on. Because we grow up reading western litterature and watching hollywood movies and we don't know a thing about the rest of the world. And the sad thing is that even hearing other people saying stereotypical things about ourselves doesn't make us want to learn 🙁

  17. I never saw a graceful African woman beautiful in thought, words and looks and that's my single story about African woman… Sorry.. It's changed now😌

  18. I never thought that I would watch this video until the end bz I was in the middle of doing other stuff. However, may be because it is so beautifully made and presented I watched it until the end. What a great African novelist! God bless her.

  19. years back i saw some young Europeans tourist in abidjan ivory dressing like they were going to the jungle !people never laugh so hard at the airport ! they were just ridiculous and being shamed in a way believing they were going into savages country! people were shaking their heads !

  20. If you are believing in Jesus Christ, the blood of is powerful present is second God trust in Jah guide and bless.

  21. So what I got from what she is telling us is that to understand a story u need to read the exact same story from at least 2 points of view, from the protagonist and the antagonist pov for example if u read the bible its incomplete since the pov of the antagonist is missing.

  22. I have been to many African countries. But I have avoided Nigeria because they are so overpopulated and because my single story of Nigerians is that they admire deceit and extortion.

  23. My only experience of getting lost in Washington D.C. during mid-day on a Tuesday was seeing so many black men standing around and leaning against buildings doing nothing. My first thought was there should be a library around here somewhere. Why were these people not interested in improving themselves? They should learn from their African brothers and sisters like the one who gave this speech.

  24. She is great story teller, one that tries to remain objective, appreciative and grounded even when others remain subjective. I remember how President Nyerere of Tanzania who was also a great story teller, being asked about what was happening in Africa during the last century, and up until the 21st century, people still think Africa is a country. Trevor Noah famously joked about how an American asked him about Africa and if he knew a guy named "Obasanji from Ghana"
    I think the single story should be a world story, a story that we are all human beings, separated geographically but united in many other ways. We can consider the world story like a tree made of roots and branches which act as the different mini-stories of human beings all around the world.

  25. I love her novel- "Americanah", such a page turner and i would recommend to anyone looking for a great novel.

  26. Most Ghanaians r sick on the head, they could watch this for thousand times and still have a single story of what Nigeria and Nigerians really is.

  27. Thanks goodness I love serious non-fiction textbooks only. The tragedy of a state is inability not to embrace separation, to allow space for reasoning!

  28. Very articulate and insightful. No hate speech nor an hint of xenophobia as it is quite common among us when we talk about this very subject. Just a clear and straightforward presentation. Cheers for all humans in and out our home earth!

  29. waooh how these white mediocra primitive people decorates lies about Africa. no wonder they tried to colonize Africa but realie we are terrific in wars.many whites were kiled

  30. Shout out to this woman. She's dissected the human nature o the core. Embrace Diversity, Learn about one another..don't just believe what you hear.

  31. I'm so obsessed with the intelligence and eloquence of the one and only Chimamanda. Yes to changing the narrative of our continent.

  32. In the cult of Ted   everything is awesome and inspirational     and ideas aren't supposed to be challenged

  33. This is a powerful talk. Stories matter and each story is just that one story..every person…every place…every organization has many stories…

    Yes

  34. Yep, the single story is always one sided and very narrow by the speaker. If I didn’t know better and use rational, I’d too think that all Mexicans were rapist, murderers, and out to get me and mine from the way we are told every week by a single story from our president, I would think that all Africans come out of dirty stinking holes, and it is very apparent Chimamanda did not. I would think that only white people contribute to society and the world and created every thing. I would think that only FOX news has the real story. It is amazing to me how many people view the world through the one sided deceitfully slanderous and altered stories that come out of FOX news and that all other media is lies. That’s why I view multiple news sources to get another side of the story. Thank you.

  35. I only care about whether you are a communist or not. You don't sound like one, so you aren't going to get a lot of respect from our communist elites and colleges. But I see on the side you spoke at Wellesley and you won't find a bigger bunch of communists than Hillary's alma mater. So I don't know…

  36. What a beautiful person! So talented! I'm very moved and amazed by the beauty and humanity of Chimamanda. We need more people like this on the mic!

  37. NKALI…..an Igbo word …..a noun and loosely translated to be greater than another ……the principle of NKALI……just like prof. Chinua Achebe quotes in things fall apart: Eneka-ntioba the bird said since men have learn to shoot without missing …..I've learn to fly without perching…..The principle of NKALI had made Igbo and Africans to be alien to their rich African roots ….I love Igbo language and thanks to Chinua Achebe for being there ….the voice of the people…..although there was a country where everything had fallen apart and the centre cannot hold….he still believes in balance of story…..IGBO AMAKA….IGBO IS SWEET

  38. Fact: People are stupid, dumb, irritating, naive and intentionally Ignorant…..towards people from the continent of Africa….especially those with a darker pigment!!!!

  39. I hope they’ll learn. They see Africans as ignorant but the true definition of ignorant is showing or doing stuff what you knew not much about smh

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