Archive for September, 2011

The Danger of a Single Story, Education, & Inmates

A couple months ago, I watched, and was moved by, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”, and had been meaning to write about it. Coincidentally, the first assignment for my Literacy, Culture, and New Media class was to respond to the video. Here it be!

I was excited to see that watching this video was our first assignment. It’s apropos to the course’s theme of technology that I first stumbled across this video from a twitter feed I follow a few months back. I was struck by Chimamanda Adichie’s powerful message that encapsulates many of my thoughts on power, education, literacy identities, and how they all intertwine. I could write a lot on her talk, but I want to touch on two themes I think about a lot in regards to education: multiple literacies/identities that we and our students possess, and power’s relation to literacy and language.

I believe an educator must consider the multiple literacies and identities that a student brings to a learning environment and how those literacies will interact with the dominant discourse found in the learning environment. Adichie’s early literary experiences included British and American novels. Like Adichie, many students may find what they read clashes with what they experience every day, causing them to feel as though their stories aren’t worth mentioning. Instead, the dominant discourse in power should be looked at critically. By acknowledging and integrating students’ identities into literacy instruction, we empower them to discover, as well as teach others, the many stories that make up their lives. I think educators need to remember that literacy is imbued with social experience, cultural connections, and power, and thus work harder to provide access to a diversity of texts and open space for multiple literacies and discourses to emerge.

Too often, those in power co-opt the story of the less powerful, as Adichie points out when describing the single “catastrophic” story of Africans who were “unable to speak for themselves”. It reminded me of a tale told by the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In a talk at the University of California–Santa Barbara, Thiong’o speaks of the man who finds his hut overtaken by a lion. Soon, the lion is the one telling the story of this man’s hut. He replaces the man as the storyteller because people want to hear this lion’s language – it seems more rational, less emotional, and credible (Thiong’o jokes that the lion “has even footnotes sometimes”). [You can watch him telling the brief story here: ] We see the danger of the single story throughout history – “Orientalism” is another prime example – when a story is perpetuated by outside perspectives placing their cultural knowledge and backgrounds onto the people and places they encounter, silencing the voices of those people and places. It is a danger that needs to be acknowledged as we educate and learn from students. What perspectives do they bring? How do our perspectives interact with their perspectives? How can we help students think critically about the stories they take in, as well as seek multiple perspectives to a story to make it more complete – even if they seem contradictory?

Her thoughts on power and storytelling are important when considering the voices lost or stifled in our classrooms and in our American society, as well. If you do not have power, you are not privileged in having multiple stories, she purports. While she mentions that she knew many stories of America because of America’s power, I thought, who within America suffers from a single story? Before I started my full time job in Bloomington, I worked part time as a teacher’s assistant in the GED program at the Monroe County Jail. While there I heard the voices of inmates who are virtually silenced by the media storytellers. They had stories beyond the stories of their crimes, identities in addition to the label of “criminal”. Since then I have been interested in educational opportunities within prisons and juvenile correctional facilities, having focused much of my research on ways educators can recognize and empower prisoners and their multiple identities. Her talk related with an inmate’s plea in the movie Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary on a prison drama group that performs The Tempest. He yearns to be able to write a different story of himself, to be seen as someone other than a criminal, and through literature and the safe space provided by the drama group, he is able to express another story.

Lastly, Adichie states: “[t]he consequence of a single story…is it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” I think about this a lot as I read of the multiple experiences within prisons and juvenile correctional facilities. By providing a space for student voices to be heard and recognized, “stories can be used to empower and to humanize”

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