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The Danger of a Single Story

Alex Kotlowitz explains the danger of crafting a single narrative—and discusses the great Chicago (and American) paradox.

Chicago skyline as seen from the West Side



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On an early fall afternoon in 1992, a year after There Are No Children Here came out, I was visiting the Henry Horner Homes, the setting for the book. In a parking lot by a highrise, I ran into Dede, who at the time was 18 years old. I had known Dede for five years; she was Lafeyette and Pharoah’s cousin. She was a troubled girl—a bit wild, tough to rein in, prone to fisticuffs. But it was understandable. Both parents drank, and she lived in a building controlled by the gangs. When I saw Dede, I paused. She was leaning against a car, her shirt and jeans hanging off her emaciated body like sheets on a clothesline. She had dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was a tangle of knots. She seemed in a stupor, and as she rested against the parked car, swaying with the breeze, she fell in and out of sleep. She’d become addicted to crack cocaine, and honestly I figured this would be the last time I’d see her. She looked as close to death as one could get without actually dying. She was gone, swallowed by the ravages of her community.

Fast forward to a few years ago. Dede’s younger brother, Porkchop, had been shot six times coming out of a liquor store in what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity. I rushed to Mt. Sinai Hospital, and as I waited on line in the lobby to obtain a pass, a young woman standing behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. “Alex,” she said. It was clear she knew me, but I couldn’t place her face. She was a handsome woman, dressed in jeans and a colorful blouse. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I should know you.” She smiled. “Alex,” she said, a bit exasperated. “It’s me, Dede.” She then threw her arms around me, and introduced her husband, a young, roundfaced man who’d been standing beside her. I shook my head, and reminded Dede of the last time I’d seen her some 15 years earlier. She told me that a year after she saw me, she had a daughter, and everything changed. She stopped smoking crack, and began attending church where she met her future husband, who was a truck driver. She was beaming, and bright-eyed and filled out. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I think of this story often, as a celebration—and as a cautionary tale, against what the Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”: the danger of thinking that people have a single narrative, that, for instance, if you’re growing up poor on Chicago’s West Side, your narrative will be the same as the person next door. Or that because you’re poor we think we know your story—or in the case of Dede, because you’re poor and a drug addict we think we know the shape of your narrative. As Adichie warns, ”Show people one way over and over again…and that’s what they become.”

It speaks to the great Chicago (really, American) paradox: We all belong to this great city, and yet are so disconnected from each other. I remember once having lunch with a Chicago Tribune correspondent who had just returned from years reporting abroad. He’d spent a day on the city’s West Side and told me it was like being a foreign country. And yet all he had traveled was a couple of miles from his office downtown to spend time with people who, in more civilized times, would be considered his neighbors.

Stories inform the present and help sculpt the future, and so we need to take care not to craft a single narrative, not to pigeonhole people, not to think we know when in fact we know very little. We need to listen to the stories—the unpredictable stories—of those whose voices have been lost amidst the cacophonous noise of idealogues and rhetorical ruffians. We speak in shorthand of gangbangers and thugs, teenage moms and high school dropouts, ex-felons and drug addicts.

I thought I knew Dede, but I didn’t.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune


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