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The stories that we still have to confront


In March, we focus our attention on looking at our past, really on “from whence we came.” A great deal of attention is naturally paid to the Caribs. There is not as much paid to our African past. Part of the reason for reflecting on our past is to look at the forces that have shaped us and made us who we are. It is these forces that have made our civilisation what it is. In understanding the latter we also have to take fully into account the period of colonialism.{{more}} Interestingly when we look at colonialism we have to remember that colonialism had the same mission and used the same tools to control people everywhere. The slaves who came from Africa would have had to make adjustments to their new environment and also to those colonial forces that wanted to shape them in a particular way. In reflecting on this issue recently I went back to the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is only 37, but wrote her first novel, The Purple Hibiscus, in 2003 when she was 26.
All her novels, including Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah have received wide acclaim and she is among the celebrated Black and African writers. She first came to my attention when I saw a video of a lecture she gave at one of the annual TED Conferences that aim at highlighting ideas and creativity. Her address was entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” When I listened to her and read her novels, I realised how similar we are and how some of the same forces helped to shape us. Although we are in post-colonial societies, we are all still struggling with the effects of colonialism. In her novel Americanah, one of the main characters who had migrated to America found herself at some point living next to a Grenadian couple. Ifemelu the Nigerian and Jane the Grenadian “laughed when they discovered how similar their childhoods in Grenada and Nigeria had been, with Enid Blyton books and Anglophile teachers and fathers who worshipped the BBC World Service.” She could also have mentioned, among others, shopping at Bata.

In her address on “The Danger of a Single Story,” she speaks about experiences with which many Caribbean persons in North America and England could identify. Her American roommate asked where she had learnt to speak such good language. The roommate was shocked when instead of playing her “tribal music” she brought out a Mariah Carey album. This was based, she said, on the Single Story, a single vision, which they had about Africa, one of negativity, of people fighting senseless wars and of poverty and people waiting on the Europeans to save them. One of her Professors rejected something she had written because the African character was so much like him. In the same way, we were victims of a Single Story. We came from primitive Africa. Our Carib ancestors were cannibals. We were enslaved and are poverty stricken. Everything we had came from Europe.
When we looked at Africans, we believed that they lived in trees. We clapped when Tarzan got into the jungle and was able to outdo the Africans: a single European figure overcoming the Africans in their own habitat. She goes on to say that, admittedly, she also had a single story. When she thought of immigration, for instance, she developed certain images of Mexicans until she went to Mexico. Similarly when our people began going to England in the 1960s, the image they had of the British was completely shattered and many had difficulty coping with it. Even in more recent times, our people would tell you how shocked they were going to America and seeing white people cleaning the streets and doing other menial work, something they never associated with white people, based on their experiences at home.

Chimamanda refers also to another issue that we always have to bear in mind when we reflect on our past, particularly our early origins. What, she asks, if our story was to start with the indigenous people, rather than with Columbus? At one time, stories about our people started with the arrival of Columbus, as if there was nothing before. It is for that reason that we celebrated “Discovery Day.” Columbus was said to have discovered us. Once when I wrote a piece questioning the concept of ‘Discovery’, Strolling Scribbler, writing in the Vincentian newspaper responded and asked “If Columbus did not discover us, then who did?” When one American, after looking at one of the characters in one of her novels became shocked that African males were such abusers, she had to inform her that she had read American Psycho, featuring a serial killer. With that kind of thinking she had to conclude that all American males were serial killers.

The Single Story shows a people as one thing over and over again. It was meant to denigrate us. So, some of our parents and grandparents didn’t want to hear anything about Africa. Some of them in North America refused to allow their children to look at Alex Haley’s “Roots”. What we have to do is to confront the negatives and pull out the positives that can help to empower us. So, our resistance against the British and French speaks about our resilience and ability to survive and maintain our humanity intact and many different aspects of our culture.

But it is even more than this; for, as Chimamanda states, our cultures and lives are filled with many overlapping stories. Our societies are therefore complex, shaped by a multiplicity of forces. “The single story creates stereotypes…but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.