Rebecca Rider column: The single story is not enough

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 4, 2016

There’s a TED Talk I love called “The danger of a single story” given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. In a little over 15 minutes, Adichie breaks down how ridiculous, narrow and ultimately harmful America’s view of Africa is. A view she says comes from being fed a single story of poverty, war and violence.

“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,” she says.

It’s an observation that I’ve been thinking about now that Black History Month has rolled around again. It seems absurd to me that something as rich and diverse as black history should be confined to a single month. In fact, I would call it criminal.

Let’s be frank, all history books are not created equal. In the American education system, history books focus predominately on European history and colonialism. Other cultures and civilizations with their own deep stories of art, culture, science and medicine are rarely mentioned outside of a context of colonization and oppression.

I think it’s time we sit down and ask ourselves what harm these narratives cause. What, for example, does it say about American society when we try to squeeze an impossibly long history of celebrations and trials into a single month?

What does it say when students only study black history in the context of slavery, the Civil War, the white supremacy that opposed the Civil Rights movement or apartheid?

We are telling a single, crippled story.

And yes, it is important to talk about and acknowledge systematic mistreatment and oppression, especially when the echoes still linger in present day society. And yes, teachers use Black History Month to talk about heroes like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver. But they are still presented in a single context of conflict. And yes, that is part of their story – but it is not the whole story.

Having students memorize “I Have a Dream” does not correct that, for the rest of the school year, black history is almost entirely forgotten. Reading Langston Hughes does not help when the predominant narrative is still “heart of darkness.”

I don’t mean to knock Black History Month as a time to celebrate heroes, artists and scientists – but I do call it a crime to reduce that celebration to 28 days. Twenty-eight days is not enough time to tell the full story.

These are people and stories that should be woven into the fabric of our history books. These are people and stories that should be given the time and attention they deserve. Students cannot keep learning half the story.

By limiting such stories to a month, but reducing them to a narrow, conflict-filled context, we are teaching students that, for the rest of the year, it’s OK to forget. We are teaching them that it’s OK to only view a person from a single angle. We are not teaching equally.

As Adichie says, “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.”

It’s time to start telling the whole story.


Contact education reporter Rebecca Rider at or 704-797-4264.