Challenging Singular Narratives: Teaching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Work in the Classroom

by Erika M. Behrmann

My first encounter with Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDGlobal Talk was during a student presentation on speech rhetoric. Adichie’s presentation, entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” inspired my students to share their own stories with the class while discussing Adichie’s effective presentation skills.1 Notably, if anyone can make feminism go viral, Adichie can. Once known for fiction, the author’s work has become popular beyond this genre as evidenced by its integration into Beyoncé’s hit “Flawless.”2 Yet, few students actually know the origin of the lyrics of “Flawless” and fewer know of Adichie’s work.

Both “The Danger of a Single Story” and her TEDx Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” discuss her experience with racism and the stereotypes she’s faced as a woman from Nigeria.3 Perfect for both an introductory women’s studies course and an advanced course on transnational feminism, these clips examine how singular narratives about marginalized countries are problematic. This essay discusses how feminist educators can utilize “We Should All Be Feminists” as a great introduction to feminist theory and how “The Danger of a Single Story” enables a better understanding of the literature on transnational feminism for students. Although I discuss only two specific examples, Adichie’s TED Talks allow me to demonstrate the broader benefits of using media clips in the classroom. More specifically, this essay examines how Adichie’s TED Talks improve media literacy about images of both feminists as well as women in marginalized spaces.

With the rise of TED Talks and YouTube, the benefits of using media clips in the classroom have been closely examined in media studies. Media clips can help make an abstract idea more accessible in conjunction with educating students about how to critically analyze media production.4 And in terms of the feminist classroom, educators still grapple with how to discuss transnational issues without rendering the women from marginal spaces as objects of discussion, lacking agency and political salience.5 As a result, I have regularly used Adichie’s talks as ancillary resources in my class. In fact, I start my lower-level survey courses with her talks because they decenter White, Western feminism in a way students can understand.

Initially known for her novels, Adichie’s work focuses on race, ethnicity, colonization, and gender through narrative. She has received numerous awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2013), and Americanah was listed by the New York Times as one of their ten best books of the year (2013).6 Her presence in both writing and activist communities makes her work an excellent addition to the feminist classroom.

Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” discusses the identity of feminist. Parallel to the work of bell hooks, Adichie gives a contemporary examination of the term.7 She pushes for the adoption of the phrase yet challenges the universality of “women’s issues.” Speaking to critics from her past, Adichie contests the advice that adopting a feminist identity is un-African, anti-man, and anti–lip gloss. Through narrative, she interrogates these myths and comes to the conclusion that, instead of inserting numerous qualifiers before the feminist identity marker (i.e., “I am an African, man-loving, lipstick-wearing feminist”), that individuals should embrace the term feminist due to gender inequity around the world.

Using numerous anecdotes from her personal life, the author establishes the breadth of this gender inequity. Yet, what is valuable beyond her persuasive stories is that she demonstrates how sexism operates differently depending on national context. One such example is a story Adichie tells about how she was passed over to be Class Monitor (a coveted position in her class based on grades) for a boy, despite having better grades. Many of my students shared similar experiences, so this part of the narrative resonates with them. Moreover, Adichie adds that the boy who was selected to be Class Monitor was “gentle-mannered” and did not want the position of power, which lends itself to a discussion of gender policing and the complexities of gender roles between men and women.

Adichie also draws on examples that showcase gender issues globally. For example, Adichie points to the fact that although women make up over half the world’s population, men occupy most positions of power. For example, even in countries like the United States women and men do not have equal representation in the public sphere. Her treatment of this issue helps students realize that sexism is present not only in marginal spaces around the world, but also in the United States. Furthermore, the way she combines narrative with empirical evidence offers students a more expansive look at global feminism. Early in my course, I often ask my students to take a “global gender gap pre-test” in which they rank each country based on how large they think its gender gap is. Every class that has done this activity ranks the United States as having the lowest gender inequity. To their surprise (and sometimes dismay), students learn that the United States is ranked twentieth in the world and that some non-Western countries have a better ranking.8

Finally, Beyoncé offers a pop-cultural interpretation of Adichie’s work. After students watch Adichie’s talk, we listen to Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” and compare and contrast the lyrics and the talk. Students enjoy this activity since most have not considered the origin of Beyoncé’s lyrics.

Although Adichie’s TEDx Talk on feminism has become well known, I want to give credit to her earlier work as well. As stated, I learned about Adichie’s TEDGlobal Talk from a student presentation. Upon further investigation, I realized that “The Danger of a Single Story” has immense pedagogical value, and I have used it in classes that focus on transnational feminism. In one part she speaks about her personal life as a Nigerian-born woman who attended university in the United States. During her first years of life, Adichie recalls reading British and American children’s books. This immersion in the Western canon left her own stories she wrote as a child riddled with Westernized characters. Her characters would do perceivably “Western things” like play in the snow and eat apples. Paramount to this anecdote is that all of her characters were white. She uses this example to demonstrate how powerful narrative is in shaping identity of the self and Others.

Since the early 1980s, transnational feminists, such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty, have argued that Western feminism often frames individuals outside the West or North solely as victims to male violence, and as victims to poverty.9 Similarly, Adichie pushes back on the narrative that people from African countries are monolithic. She does this by arguing that a singular narrative, more specifically a singular narrative about Africa, limits one’s understanding of the complex histories, identities, and issues that exist within this continent. Moreover, the lack of women of color in literature creates a discourse that centralizes Whiteness and Western philosophical traditions while erasing alternative narratives. After watching this clip, my students often find significance in her description of her housekeeper. Growing up middle-class, Adichie had housekeepers who were perceivably poor. Citing the US colloquialism, Eat your food because there are starving people in Africa, Adichie speaks of how her mother often castigated her for not eating because there were starving people who had less. She notes feeling pity and an immense sadness for her housekeeper who often received donated goods from her family. This perception of her housekeeper was singular—that she was poor. Adichie draws parallels between her own perceptions and that of her college roommate in the United States who asked, Where did you learn to speak English so well? and was surprised to learn that Nigeria’s official language is English. My students often find this moment eye-opening as they begin to realize that they, too, have singular narratives of Africa.

I use this clip to stimulate students’ thinking about how Western feminism has framed women from marginal spaces around the world. After watching Adichie’s talk, I ask my students to list singular narratives that the US media have used to portray Africa, after which I encourage them to look into how these singular narratives can be debunked by tweets from African individuals. Examining tweets with the hashtag #TheAfricatheMediaNeverShowsYou, students spend about fifteen minutes identifying common trends presented by the individuals who use this hashtag. As a means to challenge the negative narratives of Africa set forth by the media, the hashtag became popular amongst African Twitter users in 2015 and has over 42,000 tweets and retweets.10 Using their list of trends, we discuss our findings as a large group. Students appreciate this activity and are frequently surprised to find that Africa has metropolitan areas or even Starbucks.

In conjunction with the hashtag activity, I have had my students do a larger project in which they find a US news article that focuses on a current global issue in a country of their choice. To get a variety of perspectives, I encourage them to choose different countries from one another as well as a country that is not the United States or located in Western Europe. Students identify the issue presented by the author of the article and deconstruct the article’s framing and narrative to determine if it is singular or not. I have found this project helps students further apply what they have learned from Adichie’s talk to their own lives.

Adichie’s work has been lauded by feminists and activists alike. Her TED Talks give students a contemporary example of how work done by transnational feminists in the 1980s is still relevant and important today and are a great ancillary tool for any classroom whose goal is to challenge the Western canon and create new narratives.

1 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TEDGlobal video, 18:49, July 2009.

2 Beyoncé, “Flawless,” in Beyoncé (New York: Jungle City Studios & Oven Studios, 2014), 4 mins.

3 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists,” TEDx video, 30:15, April 29, 2013.

4 Renee Hobbs, “Does Media Literacy Work? An Empirical Study of Learning How to Analyze Advertisements,” Advertising & Society Review 5, no. 4 (2004).

5 Laura Parisi and Lynn Thornton, “Connecting the Local with the Global: Transnational Feminism and Civic Engagement,” Feminist Teacher 22, no. 3 (2012): 214-32.

6 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

7 bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000).

8 Yasmina Bekhouche, Ricardo Hausmann, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and Saadia Zahidi, The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2014), 8.

9 Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 17-42.

10 Rachel Banning-Lover, “The Africa the Media Never Shows You – In Pictures,” Guardian, June 30, 2015.

Erika M. Behrmann is a scholar-activist focusing on feminist theory, postfeminism, pedagogy, postcolonialism, and their various intersections and materializations within media and gaming spaces. She is a doctoral candidate in Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University. Her publications can be found in the journal Teaching Media Quarterly (2015) and in MOOCs and Open Education around the World (Edited by Curtis J. Bonk, Mimi M. Lee, Thomas C. Reeves, and Thomas H. Reynolds). She regularly presents refereed papers at the Gender, Bodies, and Technology conference, and at national and international conferences for the National Communication Association, National Women's Studies Association, and the International Communication Association.