Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Importance of Telling the Other Stories in the Classroom

By Breeanna Elliott — November 03, 2015 4 min read

The celebrated Nigerian author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Adichie warns of “the danger of a single story.” In her TEDtalk “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009) she reminisces,

[W]hen 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, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. 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.

Although speaking of a childhood anecdote, Adichie casually confronts a very uncomfortable reality—the reliance on a single narrative to define how you view the world and how you act, or in her case, how you write. As an early writer, Adichie wrote about characters who drank ginger beer and were white with blue eyes. The British books that she read presented these types of characters; initially, she was unable to recognize that “people like [her], girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.”

When young children, impressionable students, and even adults, are exposed to a narrow world view, their understandings of reality, opportunity, and self-identity become distorted and reflect an imposed limitation. Despite this obvious danger, this single narrative is woven into the fabric of most U.S. schools and we bear witness to its consequences.

Eliminate the Misconceptions and Engage the Students

Sometimes it comes in the form of disengagement born out of a curriculum that has little relevance to the lives it aims to educate. In his recent book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the recent MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant recipient and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, states an all too common feeling about school: “The world had no time for the childhood of black boys and girls. How could the schools? ... All of it felt so distant to me. I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would.”

School subjects must be representative of a student’s reality and capture the variety of human experiences as they relate to the field. They must avoid the trap of reinforcing the same antiquated stories. Such stories often convey overemphasized stereotypes, which run rampant in history and literature classes as well as social spheres. When students are exposed to a limited understanding of a topic, a group of people, a history, and of themselves, they often fear and then unintentionally fall victim to the limited reality that has been painted for them.

By the same token, when students are only exposed to a series of limited perspectives, they formulate their own skewed misconceptions. In an age of increasing globalization, this has implications for how we interact with others at every level, from local cosmopolitan communities to international organizations. However, despite the best intentions, lessons concerning this malleable “other” are often shoehorned in and drawn from unreliable resources.

History has not been kind to those who have been denied the option to tell it themselves. So when we glean our understanding of American and World history from the textbooks and resources dominated by predominantly white, Western, Christian, and or male authors, our ability to relate, comprehend, and share stories of alternative realities becomes handicapped.

Africa’s Influence

Such a phenomenon is particularly concerning when U.S. public schools are now majority-minority—with the collective number of Latino, African American, and Asian students surpassing the number of non-Hispanic white students. However, despite the dawn of a new demographic shift, the curricula in practice largely mirrors an antiquated emphasis on a narrow understanding of what constitutes an American literature, an American history, and the American arts. Even in world history and global literature classrooms, Africa—the second largest continent and the birthplace of mankind—often constitutes little more than a quick unit, if mentioned at all.

This de-emphasis is born out of a lack of teacher training and knowledge on Africa in all range of subjects, which unintentionally marginalizes students who do not or cannot relate to lack of diversity and voice in their education. The focus on African studies and African-related studies in the classroom, including the diaspora, forms a crucial component of identity-building and deconstructing stereotypes in history and the world beyond.

Education on Africa, as well as that of other area studies, is applicable to all subjects and can be transformative for all students. It not only highlights an often overlooked rich and diverse history, but also an equally fascinating and important contemporary global powerhouse. Intertwining the stories from Africa with the stories from areas and peoples around the world ensures a deeper and more holistic understanding of reality. It ensures that what we deem as history, literature, art—topics worthy of study in America—represent the legacies and contemporaries of those studying and those who are studied. It protects us from the dangers of a single story.

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