Americanah and 'The Danger of a Single Story'
Students analyze their preconceptions about continental Africa and Nigeria before diving into study of Chimamanda Adichie's modern Nigerian novel, Americanah.
The strategies used in this lesson could be applied to many types of documentaries, especially those that present a less familiar narrative or locale. Asking viewers to dive deep within someone else's lived experience is powerful, but forcing them to consider how they are complicit in enacting the systems that oppress others can be life changing. Panel discussions and post screening conversations could employ some of the same questioning tactics as the lesson and leave audiences with a widened and personalized conception of the film and subject matter that persists in their memories.
Two-three 50 minute class periods
This unit serves as an introduction to the critically acclaimed novel Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The lesson asks students to examine their preconceived ideas and mental images about the continent of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. It also teaches useful background for understanding the events and themes of Americanah, a fictional account that straddles modern day Nigeria, the UK and the US centering on themes of displacement, cultural questioning, race, and identity.
Students will be led through a thought exercise where they share the first images that pop into their minds when they think of Africa and then Nigeria. Invariably students will conjure up some timeworn stereotypes of Africa as a place of only deserts, savannahs, lions, and hunger. Rather than shame students for their lack of nuance here, this lesson seeks to examine where those mental images come from and to what extent we’re complicit in their continued currency.
Then students will view images and learn some demographics about modern day Africa and Nigeria to begin dispelling this ‘single story’ of the continent. Students will reflect on the difference between their perceptions and reality.
Next, students will view Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” which examines her own stereotypical notions of British life as a child as well as the stereotypes placed on her by others during her college years in the US. It’s a compelling and thoughtful take on the pernicious biases behind our thinking.
Students will be asked to connect to the TED talk examining times in their lives they have felt burdened by a single story about themselves. They should be thinking about: how do stereotypes limit everyone’s expression? Where and when do these notions take root? This unit also begins the practice of empathizing and connecting with the characters in the novel, even though their realities might be very different than most of the students in the class.
Students will then deepen their understanding of Nigeria’s history and how it has affected its present political, economic, and cultural state. A knowledge of colonialism and post-colonial theory informs this section of the unit, and I have pulled primary source documents, maps and quotes from the ‘Scramble for Africa’ to illustrate the paternalistic and heedless mindset of the era.
Students will learn about the Biafran War, the famine that resulted, and the impact on present day Nigeria and the author’s life. Here, students should analyze to what extent the images of famine, military coups, and civil strife in Nigeria have formed our conceptions of the entire continent. Hopefully, they will be inclined to ask why these images are publicized to such an extent rather than more nuanced portrayals.
This section ends with another personal connection activity where students examine what they are growing up ‘in the shadows of.’ The hope here is that students examine their personal culture and think critically about how their future may be affected by current societal issues.