Danger of a Single Story?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of narrative. After returning home from a trip to Kenya, the place of my birth, it struck me how many competing stories exist about “Africa.” Conrad’s depiction of the “Black Continent” in The Heart of Darkness has been seminal in influencing the perspectives and biases of those who’ve never stepped foot in the subcontinent. Education also plays a role in promoting knowledge construction through the promotion of a “hidden curriculum.” A thoughtful scholar who wrote about the Clash of Ignorance commented that this concept alludes not only to an individual’s lack of knowledge on a particular topic, but also, the way those who control and amass knowledge use this ignorance to influence and even manipulate discourse.

It is with this in mind that I ponder upon the implied danger of a single story in perpetuating ignorance and misinformation.  In her TED Talk, novelist Chimamande Adichie speaks about the danger of a single story. She suggests that there is a grave irresponsibility that plagues those who choose to narrate an event from one perspective. As a History teacher, I agreed wholeheartedly with Chimanade, that teaching students the importance of perspective and a plurality of opinions is increasingly necessary in our interconnected world.

However, at a recent conference at McGill University, keynote speaker George Sefa Dei presented a compelling alternative viewpoint. Dei, a Professor at the University of Toronto whose research interests focus on anti-colonial education, is a passionate speaker around issues of social justice and anti-racism discourse. Drawing from his own experiences as a Ghanaian, Dei spoke passionately on this subject in an address entitled “The Intellectual and Political Project of Decolonization and Anti-Colonial Praxis in the [Western] Academy.”  In discussing contemporary schooling and education, Dei suggests that the power of a single story can disrupt the prevailing meta-narrative.

For inclusive education and an inclusive space of dialogue to occur, it seems the first step is in questioning the construction of knowledge. Who has the power to produce and disseminate knowledge? We must always be mindful and critical of this.  For me, importance must be placed on creating a space for any and all voices to emerge, be it one or twenty. The power of a single story can only be recognized in the presence of, and not in the silence of, other stories.  But we must be willing to listen- for the one who tells the story is the one who understands the experience being narrated from a certain perspective that we are not privy too.  With that I end with an African proverb:

If you want to know how heavy a bag of salt is, ask the one carrying it.

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