Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of when she arrived at her U.S. college from Nigeria, and her American roommate was surprised that Adichie knew how to use a stove. The roommate commented on how good Adichie’s English was, not realizing that English is the official language of Nigeria. When she asked to hear her “tribal music,” Adichie pulled out a Mariah Carey album.
Adichie says this series of exchanges happened because the roommate only knew a “single story” about Africa. When we only hear one kind of story about a group of people, we start to assume they’re all the same–we learn a stereotype. The roommate had heard one set of stories about Africa, apparently none of them about middle-class Black people there. This seems to have left her imagination woefully lacking about who her new roommate might be.
As I teach my kids during Black History Month, it strikes me how important stories are to the shaping of imagination. Looking around, my kids are going to see the huge economic and social gaps that our society has intentionally built between Black people and white people, and they’re going to hear the negative stereotypes that appear in so many books and movies. To get beyond this toxic “single story,” my kids need to hear lots of different kinds of stories. Some might be:
- Stories of Oppression: The inequalities are real, and kids need to know where they came from.
- Stories of Liberation: Enslaved people who resisted, emancipationists, Black Revolutionary War soldiers, civil rights leaders and marchers, and the like. If you’ve never heard, for instance, the story of how an enslaved woman named MumBet hired an attorney and wound up freeing all the slaves in Massachusetts, it’s worth a read.
- Other Positive Stories: Black scientists, authors, business people, athletes, artists, and others who have made important contributions. Many of these will of course be stories of racial justice as well.
- Ordinary stories: I want to include these stories to help my kids escape the assumption that anyone needs to somehow prove themself to be especially good in order to be viewed as an “exception” to racist stereotypes.
Classical homeschooling already uses so many stories that the adjustment is not difficult. After all, the point of “classical” is not that something is old, but that it is excellent. I read my kids Robert Louis Stevenson and Beatrix Potter, but I also read them Langston Hughes poems and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.
A lot of this is still aspirational, as I’m realizing that all of our read-aloud bedtime novels the past two years have been by white or Asian authors. On a road trip last year we did listen to Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, a solid adventure story built upon powerful and challenging messages about race and racism. Since starting this post, I’ve been previewing some more books by Black authors, and I expect I’ll write about some of them in this space as I read them to my kids.
I’m not pretending that stories will solve racial inequality, or that society would be magically cured of racial injustice if every white kid just heard more stories for Black History. As my kids get older, I’ll want to look for opportunities for more active learning to improve policies, social structures, and the like. But being formed by lots of stories helps open up the imagination, and helps us see people––and complicated social problems that affect people––in their complexity, rather than filing them into a stereotype already existing in our brain.
Consider, for example, Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, which I’m previewing for my kids to read. Johnson’s main characters Candice and Brandon are surprised to find out how much pride their grandparents’ generation takes in the “colored” high school they graduated from in the days before integration. They tell them that the building was old and the textbooks were used, but they had a community with teachers who cared for them, they got a good education there, and they were proud to be a part of it. As a white person it would be easy for me to assume the simplistic story that Black schools before integration were simply inferior, while white schools were simply better. But the truth is more complex: the oppression was real, but so were the achievement, and the pride, and the sense of family.
There will be so much more for my kids to learn. But my hope is that reading to them as they grow, far beyond the “single story,” will set their imaginations free to see clearly, to engage thoughtfully, to choose wisely, and eventually to act justly.