A Dangerous Single Story: Dispelling Stereotypes through African Literature.

Author:Brooks, Robin
Position:Critical essay

In 2009, the prize-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presented a TED Talk titled "The Danger of a Single Story" that has now garnered nearly fifteen million views. (1) During the talk, she explained how she began writing stories at a young age. These stories included characters with blond hair and blue eyes because she was imitating the American and British stories she read. It was not until she began reading books by African authors such as Chinua Achebe that she experienced "a mental shift in [her] perception of literature" and began to write characters--Black characters--with which she could identify. Thus, exposure to African writers saved her from the danger of "a single story" about what books could be (Adichie, "Danger"). Unsurprisingly, many people exhibit limited thinking when they have a lack of knowledge. In fact, we can all be guilty of stereotyping and wrongfully characterizing people and things with which we are unfamiliar. Adichie discusses the problematic nature of having partial and inadequate information or accessing solely a single story: "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" (Adichie, "Danger"). People, in essence, should not make definitive claims based on insufficient data. I draw the title of this article from Adichie's talk because of my focus on dispelling dangerous single stories that have wrongly categorized an ethnically and culturally diverse group of people.

The reality of the existence of stereotypes about the over one billion people that make up the continent of Africa is no secret. Recently, media outlets around the world engaged in debates over a January 2018 comment from a US leader that denigrated African nations, bringing a discussion of stereotypes about Africa to the fore globally. (2) Such vile comments continue to reverberate in many places around the globe due to the history of African enslavement by Europeans (and Eurasians) and colonialism as well as present-day imperialism and exploitation of African people and their descendants throughout the African diaspora. Boldly proclaiming their value and humanity, people of African descent on the continent and across the globe continue to fight against destructive portrayals of themselves and embrace positive ones no matter the venue of representation. When Marvel's Black Panther film, for instance, based on the fictional African nation of Wakanda opened in theaters during February 2018, people of Africa and its diaspora overwhelmingly supported it. (3) The powerful roles of African women characters in the movie were also reasons it received praise, as they presented a refutation of stereotypes about the role of African women in the history and current-day affairs of Africa. (4) Still, many of the well-known figures in the African literary canon today are largely African male writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Ben Okri. There are also many notable African women writers whose fiction has made inroads in the canon, including Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariama Ba, Nawal El Saadawi, Buchi Emecheta, Yvonne Vera, and Tsitsi Dangarembga.

More recently, a new generation of writers such as Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Helen Oyeyemi, and Yaa Gyasi have created indelible impressions on the global literary scene. In this article, I engage the novels of African women writers across nations that explore stereotypical images. I argue that African women writers utilize the idea of a "single story" by exposing popular stereotypes about African people in their novels through controversial depictions and subject matters as a way to disrupt these stereotypes.

Building on Adichie's interpretation of the danger of a single story, this article contributes to the field of African studies, specifically African literary studies, to explore methods for debunking stereotypes. While scholars such as Carole Boyce-Davies, Esi Sutherland-Addy, Irene Assiba D'Almeida, and Marie Umeh have produced exemplary scholarship on African women writers, room still exists for more attention to women writers. (5) Focusing on the genre of the novel, which is the "dominant literary genre on the continent" (Irele, African Novel 1), this article begins with scholarship on stereotypes of African people to provide a background for current-day mislabeling. Within this section, I highlight several common stereotypes and the origins of some of them. Next, I discuss the significance of African women writers choosing to engage the stereotypes within their novels. Following this discussion, I examine NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names (2013) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah (2013), focusing on key scenes that display popular stereotypes about African people. I situate the scenes within the narratives and discuss their overall importance to the emancipatory project of eradicating destructive stereotypes. Ultimately, my intention is to contribute to the existing critical thought and research on African experiences to expand the scope of the field in general and to highlight ways African women writers reclaim and honor the subjectivity of African people specifically.

Stereotypes exist concerning various parts of African people's livelihoods. In his satirical essay "How to Write about Africa," Binyavanga Wainaina notes a plethora of stereotypical portrayals that appear in literature by non-African writers about the continent. (6) Besides political corruption, he describes portrayals of Africans either starving or eating peculiar foods such as "monkey-brain"; Africa being either overpopulated or depopulated due to war and diseases like AIDS; and people wandering aimlessly either without any clothes on or dressed in traditional Zulu or Dogon attire. His vexation at these portrayals is clear via the sarcastic tone he uses in his delivery. Still, Wainaina's essay does not encompass other equally troubling yet common stereotypes such as African nations having a lack of modern technology, being covered with wild animal-filled jungles and mud houses to the exclusion of modern buildings, and consisting of people who do not do anything to help themselves while practicing vile religions (meaning traditional African religions). Despite being a continent encompassing over fifty nations, Africa is often referred to as one country, and the vastness of its geographical size is frequently underestimated. From where do these ideas and beliefs stem? The source of these inaccuracies and misinformation about African people must be a part of any discussion aimed at eliminating stereotypes.

Like many others, Adichie calls out the role of Western literature in promoting and perpetuating a single story of Africa in "The Danger of a Single Story." She references Rudyard Kipling's chronicling of Africans as "half-devil, half-child" as well as a London merchant, John Locke, who wrote in his journal of his voyage to Africa in 1561 that Africans are "beasts who have no houses" (Adichie, "Danger"). She declares that Locke's writing "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" (Adichie, "Danger"). Proving that Adichie is not alone in her assessment of the West's role in the horrid portrayals of Africans, scholarship in several fields addresses this line of thought. For instance, Africana Studies scholars such as Maulana Karenga and historians like John Hope Franklin have spent decades producing a wealth of research about the negative impact of European imposition on the lives of Africans and their descendants. (7) Literary scholars, including F. Abiola Irele and Kwame Anthony Appiah, also discuss the lasting effects of European control over African populations. (8) Similarly, the renowned anthropologist Elliott P. Skinner examined how many Western philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire believed Africans to be inferior and how their writing was evidence of such beliefs (30). Referring to what is called the curse of Ham, Skinner also noted the role of Christianity from a Western perspective, writing: "The image of Africa that emerged after the period of this initial contact was one of a 'Dark Continent' whose peoples were subhuman, heathen, and barbarous. The developing biblical Hamitic myth, said to be of Babylonian Talmudic origin, assigned Africans the role of servants to other peoples because of Canaan's misdeeds" (29-30). Ultimately, the conclusion that many Westerners came to is that Africans' differences from Westerners equated to inferiority.

Combatting the effects of such a negative mind frame, African women writers engaging commonplace stereotypes is significant to the enterprise of self-liberation and self-definition. The internalization of negative beliefs has worked to impede the progress and development of people of African descent the world over. Adichie states that a way to create a single story is to "show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become" (Adichie, "Danger"). I contend that they not only become that one thing to others; they can become that one thing in their own opinion as well. Self-rejection and self-hatred can be effects of constant degradation. In fact, the "destruction of human possibility--the destruction of life-chances and the grounds for human aspiration, freedom, dignity and human solidarity with others" (Karenga 109) is a result of the physical and cultural genocide stemming from European enslavement and colonialization of African people. While Adichie proclaims that "[S]tories matter" (Adichie, "Danger"), the stories that people tell themselves also matter.

I believe writers use stereotypes as a point of entry to relate the complex issues and experiences...

To continue reading