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Breaking Down the Barriers of Stereotypes

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“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” -Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie is a beautiful soul. Her writing, representative of the struggle encountered by the people of Eastern Nigeria, has given a voice to the voiceless. I have a bit of a crush on her, which is anchored on the fact that in a world populated by bipolar extremes, she comes across as a perfectly balanced being. Pretty but approachable; well-dressed but not intimidating, intelligent in the most non condescending manner possible. High achiever, yet still humble.  When she talks, a lot of us listen. In July 2009, she delivered a Ted Global speech in which she highlighted the danger of the single story. The video went viral.  The premise of her argument was that as an African writer, she felt an obligation towards challenging the stereotypes and limitations that were unrepresentative of reality. She explained that as a child, her stories were set from an ‘oyibo’ perspective. She said “I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (Laughter) Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to. My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was.” Gradually, her roots found a way into the picture thanks to the likes of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye and this helped inspire the texts which have inspired the love and regard in which we hold her.

Touré Neblett, simply known as Touré is an African-American essayist, writer and journalist, and a Contributing Editor to Rolling Stone magazine, develops this thesis of Adichie’s in his book, ‘Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness?’. The book shines light on and explores the era of Post Blackness which would best be described as an era filled with protagonists who take pride in their being black but are not hindered or limited by the politics of race and identity. This definition is best encapsulated by the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, two people who have battled against racial limitations to reach the top.  In working on the book, Touré interviewed stalwarts of the African American community like  Al Sharpton , Cornel West and Jesse Jackson, music artistes like ?uestlove, Lupe Fiasco, Chuck D and Talib Kwali amongst other literary and artistic figures. Touré’s book is a better detailed exploration of Adichie’s aforementioned argument. The first chapter’s titled ‘40 Million Ways to be Black’ and it seeks to tear apart the paradigm that certain acts shouldn’t be carried out by Black people. “How can you go skydiving? Black people don’t do such”….”Why do you donate to an animal cruelty cause? Since when did black people care about animals?” When did one’s ethnicity become a determinant of one’s behavior and character traits?

Rick Ross, the robust and husky voiced American rapper released a Nigerian video version to his song ‘Hold Me Back’. The video was shot in Lagos about a month ago while Ross was there to fulfill a concert date. There are references to the Civil War and the deceased Rashidi Yekini at USA ‘94.  The video captures some of the grittier elements of Lagos–the gutter side food-seller (Mama Put), roadside garbage, stray goats, old lady hand washing clothes, indecently dressed children, plantain chips hawkers, street fights, and the street beggar. Like all other pieces of art, the video and song have been subjected to all sorts of interpretations. To some, it is an indictment on the state of affairs in Nigeria. It is viewed as disrespectful and distasteful to portray the poverty in Lagos in the light Ross has proceeded to. They argue, the nation is filled with infrastructure that would portray Nigeria better.

That I assure you that a government release lamenting on the video is not far off. I personally am not sympathetic to the government as I believe that their focus should be on taking actions that would allow more of the ‘good Nigeria’ to become the norm and not chasing after good press. Some have argued that that school of thought is being unnecessarily sensitive. They argue that on a simplistic level the song and video signify a taunt to those enemies of progress that despite obstacles and barriers, success is around the corner. By playing on the Lagos slums, Ross shows that even in a society where the system and infrastructure aren’t as one would like, one can’t be held back with the right mindset.

All this is subjective. However, what is certain is that whether knowingly or unknowingly Ross has played into the idea of the single story and stereotypes. He has fed the idea that Lagos and Africa is the land of jungle justice. He highlights the filth and deplorable conditions that the stereotypical view would suggest. The sad reality is that this would become the abiding memory of Nigeria to some and that is unfair and has set back the work of Chimamanda and Toure in their bid to challenge larger society to break down the mental slavery and deficient reasoning.

Maybe, if it made our leaders sit up, it would all be worth it.

Photo credit: jaclynhawtin.com

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OluwaMayowa Idowu is a blogger, writer and Web Journalist. His work can be found on http://mayowaidowu.com . You can also follow him on Twitter @MayowaIdowu | http://shutterfeeds.com 

28 Comments

  1. smiles

    September 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Very well constructed I must say. I admire your writing a whole lot. I was glued to d screen while reading -almost entered it 🙂

  2. jigga

    September 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Kudos I enjoyed reading this piece :-)!

  3. duchess

    September 24, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Chimamanda’s ‘The Danger of a single story’ was simply awesome. It was simply artistic…
    We do find ourselves judging others based on what we hear and not what we experience. Like she said, when the media(videos, literary wise etc) portrays a situation in one light, from one view, we get influenced and our thinking reflects that….It is rather sad that Nigeria is strictly being portrayed as the slums and conveniently forgets to portray the strengths of those who have made it through to rise above it…It is not the government’s duty to go around chasing good press, gradually as the system becomes better we hope the situation changes…but then no country can claim it is perfect with no issues bombarding them..we can only do our best

  4. Onos

    Onos O

    September 24, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    very intelligent writing!

  5. Anti - stereotype

    September 24, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    We know, no society is perfect, and every corner of the world you go to, you will find the good, the bad, the broken and the ugly. The problem with Nigeria is, and I’m sorry to say, the good represents a very very small minority. Chimamanda that you mention, was raised in a middle class home, so technically, she wasnt exposed, or she was shielded, if i can say that to the world that Rick Ross potrayed. it just really sickens me, when people from the middle class, go gung ho on issues of Nigeria’s image. Go to the slums, and ask them what they feel about their condition. It is easy to sit down in the comfort of our homes, and discuss stereotypes. These bad images are not just fictitious pictures. This is exactly how these people live, this is their reality, and why should it be swept under the carpet, all in the name of we dont want to be stereotyped. Come off it. You go tell people suffering, that sorry o, we dont want to potray the hell you live in, because it will affect the image of Nigeria. Wetin concern the little boy living in a gutter about the image of Nigeria. How do we fight for these people, how do we protect and defend the helpless, and down trodden. Who is going to do it? The middle class has carefully bonded with the rich over time, because they want to belong, and feel like they too have a class, forgetting that, push comes to shove, the rich bond together and leave you the middle class standing in the dust. It is evident all over the world now, despite the recession, with the middle class shrinking, and people losing their jobs and homes, the rich has gotten richer in this recession. The poor people middle class people used to look their nose down on, they r now at the same level. He that is dwon needs no fear no fall, so please dont come here with your write up, and talk about stereotypes. What do you, or chimamanda herself know about suffering. What gives you the right to feel outraged, or affronted, that someone recorded the truth as it is. Only the rich and the middle class are concerned about image, that is the truth. The poor man on the street doesnt give a damn, and when we all give a damn about the real issues, forgetting stereotypes, image or what some ignorant foreginer (who has never suffered in his life because his country works) thinks, then things will change, and that image we r so worried about will change, because people wont help but notice

    • Jiddah

      September 24, 2012 at 3:53 pm

      Haba? It said comment and not write your own blog……

    • Thatgidigirl

      September 24, 2012 at 9:41 pm

      LMAO! d matter tire me too o, was getting dizzy from reading the “comment”

    • cesc

      September 24, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      Thank you anti-stereotype for this comment… The truth ! well said!

    • Tunmi

      September 25, 2012 at 3:42 am

      Wow, you said what I’ve been thinking all along about the video, and thank you for such a fabulous response. May I quote it on my blog, please say please. I will most certainly credit it. If you have questions: [email protected]

    • Anti - stereotype

      September 25, 2012 at 10:41 am

      Sure you can. My apologies for the long winded comment, I’m jut so pissed about the response to this video, and from people who should know better.

    • oyin

      September 25, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Fantastic response! Stereotype or no stereotype, the truth is there are sooooo many people suffering out there. Who are we really trying to deceive by “covering it up”. It’s Nigeria’s reality and we have to face it!

  6. Anti - stereotype

    September 24, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    *foreigner

  7. ucylo

    September 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    what great writing is this!!!!!!! amazingly put and delivered

  8. Juddymak

    September 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Loved the writing, enjoyed reading it and wish that at the end of Rick Ross ‘Hold me back’ video, he had shown how he made it despite the *niggers holding him back, always like reading on bellanaija more than looking at pictures, kudos Mayowa

  9. Izzi

    September 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    GOD punish rozzay

    • huh

      September 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      for what again? or Nigeria is perfect abi? No job,Boko Haram, Nepa, bad roads, poor healthcare, scrappy education…

    • Anuoluwapo soyemi

      September 25, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      Why should God punish rozzay? For interpreting the truth in his video? I like to call a spade a spade. Calling hammer a spade won’t make it shovel dirt.

  10. Kemi

    September 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm

  11. cathy

    September 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    well written

  12. my eyez are popping

    September 24, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Interesting write up,was drown to the story blcas Chimananda was mention,thou I couldn’t finish it,reading long post using phone,can be stressful.

  13. ebuka

    September 24, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    fact remains that he did those guys in d slum a big favour.he gave them d attention which no govt official or rich-class would give them.guess it was a celebration of some sort down there. Havin Rozay spend an evening with them,doling some dollar wads to them,closing up some shops & distributing the groceries.we may condemn the guy but he has helped in his own.who knows,UN could strike a transformation project for the slum as Music(& videos) have a way of telling a million story & appealing to the mind.

    • ebuka

      September 24, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      *own way

  14. partyrider

    September 24, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Great read

  15. Agape

    September 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    What an expressive writer you are! Very well written.

  16. Vee

    September 25, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Such excellent writing

  17. Tunmi

    September 25, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    The writing was good but I disagree about the video being a single story. He showed what he saw on his way to the concert, which took place at Victoria Island. The thing is that he showed both sides of Naija, the ‘bad’ part and the good part. He gave a history lesson, the ‘bad’ part dominated the video and he showed the concert with the Brazilian weaves and big boyz and girlz. The slums dominated the video because there are more slums than there are non-slums in Naija, and that is the uncomfortable truth. You presented a great argument but this was not a single story. He didn’t go under the bridges, and let’s not kid ourselves into believing people don’t live there or have families there.

    But let’s not stop there, if we are to prevent this single story phenomenon, let’s call out our own artists when they make videos only in the good parts of Naija because that is also a single story. Let’s call out Psquare, Wizkid, DBanj and whomever else when they show the club scenes with the Brazilian hair and summer collections wears because that is also a single story. Let’s call out our filmmakers when they make movies about places majority of nigerians will never go, unless to hawk goods because that is a single story. Let’s call our own people out when they do the same thing and not just harp on the foreigners who show us what our house is truly like. We should also not accept single stories because they paint Naija in a good light.

    I’m upset because I saw those same scenes 9 years ago in Naija and those scenes still exist today. It’s shockingly realistic and it’s an uncomfortable truth. How about we let our local govt chairmen/women, our governors, our representatives, our senators and our president know? How about we actually take a stand against what is shown rather than take a stand against the messenger.

    Fortunately, youtube has both the ‘good parts of Africa/Naija’ and the ‘bad parts of Africa/Naija’. Whomever finds the video stereotypical can wallow in ignorance or do research, google is their friend.

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