The Danger of a Single Story is a speech of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The excerpt to be analyzed portrays the social and psychological threat of neglecting the voices of groups of people from literary discourse, as well as the importance of the postcolonial literary field as a way to counteract the master-narratives which have been dominating literature all over the world, an effort which began as a systematic method to subjugate and devalue the voices of whole groups of people, which affect society as well as the individual to this day. The excerpt gives insight to the psychological and social effects of colonization in a very personalized way. Adichie explains, that although she grew up on a university campus in Nigeria, the books she was reading when she was a child were all British and American, which ultimately influenced her understanding of the standard for a human being through the depiction of the characters in the books. Their habits, appearance and world views, however foreign to the Nigerian girl reading the story, were held as the standard for an understanding of herself and, with that, her relation to that which she perceived as the other, the question then being: Who is the other in this case? Does she feel a division of identity? This split in an understanding of self, as that which is foreign but also that which is felt to be the natural self, is discussed by many scholars, one of them being W.E.B Du Bois, who proposed the concept of “double consciousness” in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks.
Postcolonial literature seeks to counteract this effect of colonization and systematic racism, in general, to raise the voices of those who have been disadvantaged. The process of decolonization is of particular importance in this regard. Described by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin as “the process of revealing and dismantling colonialist power in all its forms” and noting that “[t]his includes dismantling the hidden aspects of those institutional and cultural forces that had maintained the colonialist power and that remain even after political dependence is achieved” (Ashcroft et al. 1998, 63), decolonization in relation to literature, simply put, is the systematic devaluing of the master-narrative and exposing of the “hegemonic process of control” (63), by means of Writing Back, a form of literary resistance and protest to material and mental colonization experienced by the oppressed. Potential social dangers of a more radicalized form of decolonization could be pro-decolonization resistance movements such as the Fanonist ideas brought up, for example, by the anti-colonial sympathies expressed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, proposing that an “anti-colonial sentiment might address the task of decolonization”, and seeing its task as “exchanging roles with the white colonial dominating class without engaging in any radical restructuring of society” (Ashcroft et al. 2000, 91), a concept which would have to propose utilizing the tools of the oppressor. A lighter approach is thereby taken by the postcolonial method known as Writing Back, or what is also referred to as counter-discourse, which Helen Tiffin describes as “inescapable and vital tasks” and “subversive maneuvers”, the “rereading and rewriting of the European historical and fictional record” (Tiffin 1995, 99).
However, what must be taken into account when speaking of a postcolonial method is the capacity for the intellectual capable of ‘giving a voice’ to speak for the oppressed. This is outlined by Gayatri Spivak when she poses the title-question to her 1994 essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, and asserts that “[i]t is impossible for contemporary […] intellectuals to imagine the kind of Power and Desire that would inhabit the unnamed subject of the Other of Europe” (75) She describes here the difficulty as well as the importance of “rewriting […] the utopian structural impulse as ‘rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us’” (104), or simply put, reformulating and restructuring the underlying understanding of self within classes and groups outside of an elite. In this way, the excerpt describing the fate of a small Nigerian girl to get to know herself from a perspective of the ‘elite’ rather than the subaltern, or the oppressed, is representative of exactly this process. Providing the environment or aiding in the elimination of the “interior voice” mentioned above is the task of decolonization. The ways in which to successfully make it happen are a matter of personal opinion and frequently discussed in postcolonial discourse.
- Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
- Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Hellen Tiffin, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (Second Edition). New York: Routledge, 2000
- DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” A Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver. Norton: 1999.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams, Laura Chrisman. Columbia University Press: New York, 1994.
- Tiffin, Helen. “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse.” The Postcolonial Studies Reader; 2nd Edition. Ed. Bill Ashcroft. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” July 2009. TED global. Accessed: 11 March 2018: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story