The Black Experience: The Danger Of The Single Story

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Hello, everyone!

Welcome to The Black Experience, a month long blog series through February, in honour of Black History Month, which features Black bloggers, booktubers and authors. This project aims at highlighting Black stories and experiences both in real life and in publishing, as well as showing our individual and collective struggles.

Today’s post is by Ronni Davis, author of When The Stars Lead to You. Ronni talks about the need for more black representation and the danger of the single story.


Years ago, I attended a workshop meant for authors to learn more about writing diverse stories and highlighting diverse characters. During the workshop, we watched a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of a single story; in short, what happens when people are reduced to one narrative.

I can tell you what happens from a personal standpoint. Stereotypes and discrimination, frustration that I’m not allowed to be a whole person. It means hearing about a horrible crime on the news and praying that the perpetrator isn’t Black. It means looking at a casting call for background roles on a TV show, and seeing all the calls for Black youth include the words thug and drug dealer instead of pedestrian or bystander. It means that one Black person’s bad behavior is the model for all of us, while the “good ones” are the anomalies.

It means flipping through show after show, wanting to watch a fun love story about Black teens, but instead being traumatized with mostly stories about Black Pain. It means watching almost exclusively Black Pain stories win awards and make loads of money, while stories about our joy are dismissed as unrelatable and unrealistic.

I write mainly in the YA/Teen space, and I also read a lot in that space. I cut my teeth on old school teen books in the late 80s, early 90s, books about how hard it was to be the new girl in school, navigating college applications, or complicated sister relationships. It didn’t occur to me, until I was well into adulthood, to be bothered by how White they were. But once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Whenever I came across the rare book with a Black girl on the cover, I grabbed it to support it… but I started to notice that too many of those books were about teen pregnancy, drugs, gang violence. Or they were historical books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Or that they had to have some important cultural, award-winning impact to be taken seriously.

Those stories are necessary. But when they’re the only stories, there is a problem.

That TED Talk was the first time I’d seen someone actually speak about this topic, and it made me explore deeply what bothered me so much about a lot of Black literature, especially in the teen book space. And it also made me confront some feelings I’d been trying to squash.

In media, Black people are typically the bad guys, the first to die, the comic relief, or as vehicles to advance the White characters. Rarely (although, thank God, it’s slowly getting better) do we get our own story that’s complex and complicated and nuanced. Rarely do we get a story that is told with the flavor of our language. It’s almost always filtered through the White gaze, stretched and twisted to be palatable to the culture that determines what is “quality” literature and entertainment, based on their standards and tastes.

Because the same story has been told about Black people for decades now, when one of us deviates from that formula, we get told our stories are unrelatable or unrealistic. We hear that gatekeepers couldn’t connect with the voice. We are told our words are not authentic enough, while a White author who may or may not even have a Black person in their outer, let alone inner circle, gets to rehash the same stories and continue to profit off of our pain.

I don’t want to write exclusively about Black Pain. I want to write love stories and rom-coms and coming-of-age stories where Black girls get to ride horses, take vacations, and study for their dream college. I want them to fall in love and kiss that person they’re crushing on. I want these girls to have makeover montages and find out they’re secret princesses or sirens or superheroes. I want to explore tropes before they’re pronounced cancelled. Played out before I get a chance to try them for myself.

Because Black people are only portrayed in so many ways in books, TVs, movies, people who consume that media believe those things to be true about us, the real people. We’re forced into this box, and if we try to break out, we quickly find that it’s unsafe. We’re quickly forced back into “our place”. Those single stories give the dominant group the tools they need to do this. They meet us, already guarded. They listen to the rhythm of our speech and call us uneducated. They immediately distrust us. It makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong, how I could be better. But think about it. If the only representation you see of people like you is negative, how big of a leap is it to start thinking of yourself that way?

White characters get to have all sorts of stories. They get to be great, sure, but they also get to be terrible. Because they have so many stories, we all know that one awful White character does not represent all White people. Black people rarely get that benefit of the doubt because we’re only allowed to generally have one story, and that story is supposed to represent us all.

Except we have so many stories and we just want the opportunity to tell them, share them, and be supported in doing so. Unfortunately, the industry is reluctant to let go of the old ways. They know the stories that have been successful, and they continue to dig that groove deeper and deeper. Meanwhile, so many different types of stories are falling into those crevices because they don’t get the support that the tried and true narratives get. And if those stories —the ones that show our truth alongside our pain, the ones that show unapologetic joy, innocence, longing —if they do get a chance? The resistance can be painful. But the pushback is exactly WHY we need to keep pushing these stories out there, and supporting the authors who create them. So they can get normalized. So everyone can learn that we’re so much more than our pain. And that our stories are just as valid, and just a relatable, as every White story that is touted as universal.

The single story is dangerous, so let’s create multitudes.

Ronni’s Links 

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4 thoughts on “The Black Experience: The Danger Of The Single Story

  1. I absolutely love this post, the heartfelt way Ronni puts it, and the entire blog series! Identity and experiences are not defined by one notion, even less by outside views. It all stems from the siege the white-lense holds on media.

    Do you have any suggestions of happy-go-lucky complex black stories? I’m hoping Francina Simone’s Smash It will be just that, and I can’t wait to read it!

    Like

  2. This is such a great post. There’s so much truth in that text that I didn’t thought of or even wondered about, but now I see it. It’s so important to push for all other ethnicities, for Black people, to see themselves is as many happy stories as we can.

    Thank you very much for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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