The Importance of All Our Histories

The saying goes that “history is written by the victors.” There is some truth to this but a better way of saying it comes from a Nigerian novelist. In her 2009 TED Talk, which is one of the most viewed ever, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “The Danger of A Single Story.” Rather than saying, “winners get to write history,” I would say instead that “we tend to listen to only one version – one story – of history.” Black history month, which just ended in February, is an important corrective. We also need to hear this “other version” of American history. As I have gotten older, celebrating the culture, uniqueness, achievements and HISTORY of the African American population in the United States has become important to me. For me, it prevents tunnel vision and from looking at history through only one story, a single perspective.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a critically acclaimed writer with degrees from Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities. Her TED talk recounts her experience with an American roommate when she first came to college in the US. The roommate held stereotypes of who she thought Adichie was. Her ideas, said the writer, were based on a prevailing, oft-repeated and one-sided narrative of Africa. For example, the roommate was confounded to discover that Adichie could speak English — even though English is one of the official languages of Nigeria. She also couldn’t understand how Adichie knew how to use a stove for cooking — yet Adichie came from a middle class Nigerian home with a college professor Dad and a school administrator Mom. The list could go on. Adichie also noted how even one of her professors did not feel that her writing was “authentically African” enough because she wrote about being educated and driving a car, “a life like mine”, said the professor. She was not writing about the Africa that he expected her to write about. The prof wanted her to be more “African”, that is, more his idea of what Africa should be about, the single story kind. Adichie said that both her roommate and the professor had probably been hearing different versions of the single story all their lives — until they met her. And they couldn’t deal with that.

This is the danger of the single story. Such thinking, such expectations, lead to stereotypes, misjudgments, even racism. Adichie also shared that she didn’t know anything about race or even that she was “African” (she’s Nigerian!) until she came to the US for college where she was told these things for the first time.

Did you know that refrigerated trucks, central heating, automatic elevator doors, the ironing board, color computer monitors and the three light traffic signal were all created or co-invented by black inventors? What would we do without these today? Novelist Ralph Ellison goes even further when he writes an acerbic yet factual and historical take on “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.” In essence, Ellison points out that the America we now live in would not be what it is without their “complex and confounding role in the creation of American history and culture,” that is, he is stating that the very PRESENCE and CONTRIBUTIONS of Black Americans — both forced and voluntary — made America what it is. In other words, America could not be what it is without black people in its overall history — so great has their contribution been.

Ellison even goes so far as to say, “on this level the melting pot did indeed melt, creating such deceptive metamorphoses and blending of identities, values and lifestyles that most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it.” If he is right and, from my knowledge of US history, I think he is, then a commemoration like Black History month in the calendar of the United States is an absolute necessity. Why? Because it keeps any single story of American history from dominating my/our consciousness. Black History month celebrates the power, legacy and contribution of African American people, their culture and genius to the overall success of the United States, indeed, to the world. I am a big fan of this month because I am a history and culture buff. But, more importantly, this idea of fighting against the single story even relates to our faith.

Based on the analogy above, some might also declare that the Bible is a “single story”, comprised of many smaller stories. To begin, let me say that I don’t agree with such an assertion. But, say it were true, for the sake of argument. Then, I would say that the power of scripture is that its “single story” can be corroborated with the stories of many others (meaning, it is NOT a “single story”!). Archaeology is the friend of Bible-believing Christians because this academic science literally unearths many other stories (histories) that prove the Bible is not just our own but that its story belongs to the world. In other words, other stories (other histories) match the stories (historicity) of scripture.

These other stories support and corroborate what the Bible says. These other stories show that the Bible is not just made up. This is because others saw or heard the same thing and wrote about it from a similar but different historical perspective, which matches with scripture. Major discoveries like the Rosetta stone, King Tut’s tomb, Hezekiah’s aqueduct, the Dead Sea Scrolls or the ruins of Jericho and the Hittite civilization have demonstrated that the Word of God is not some fairy tale in the minds of a few people but that it is what it says it is, and that it is historically and scientifically valid. These other stories complement the story of scripture, demonstrating that the Bible is, in fact, NOT a single story but a web of multitudinous stories interwoven into the history of all humanity.

Telling history is telling a story, no, not A story but MANY stories. And the more stories we have and the more varied the perspectives, the better the view of that history and the better the chance we will have of getting to the factual truth of what actually happened. THAT is something worth both recording and reading. Something for the ages. Happy Black History month!

Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

John 21:25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written.