Walking on Words

Today my campus is covered in words. All over our sidewalks, the following messages call out in cheerful pastel chalk:

“Delta Gamma’s purpose is to stop blindness before it starts.”

“80% of all blindness in adults is preventable or curable.”

“Delta Gamma’s service for sight began in 1936 to stop blindness before it starts.”

“1/4 of all visually impaired are women.”

“Rates of blindness will double by year 2020.”

“Every 7 seconds someone in the U.S. goes blind.”

“A child goes blind every minute.”

Friends tell me that these and similar messages crowd the sidewalks around the coffee shop and quadrangle. As we walk in search of coffee, they read the messages aloud. We stop, they proclaim a chalked statistic, I ask them to write it down, and we shuffle forward to repeat the process. Sometimes we don’t even have to move; we just turn around, confronted on all sides by these messages. As we get coffee, we cannot avoid walking across the messages. I walk over them when I head to my classes. On the way to my office, I walk through these words.

Regardless of their truth, these messages advance what the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, calls a “single story.” According to Adichie, a “single story” is a one-dimensional version of events. Promoted by narrators with political or social power, single stories can overrule others, becoming the only story that is ever told. This is what Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

(Watch Adichie’s TED Talk here.)

These seven sidewalk messages narrate a powerful story, a drastic epic of frightening deficit and miraculous healing. In alarming statistics, they tell the tale of blindness, a persistent disease that strikes quickly, leaving its victims bereft. They tell of Delta Gamma, the ministering nurse and courageous hero. They speak of the “80%” – those whose misfortune could have been prevented and may yet be cured. We don’t know how their blindness could be prevented. Perhaps they are to blame.

The writings don’t tell the story of the 20% – those born with congenital visual impairments, those who have lost their vision in accidents, or those whose vision deteriorated over time. They don’t include those who are not eligible for gene therapy, those whose vision loss is cortical, or those who no longer have eyes. In this single story, blindness is neither the conflict nor the rising action.

This is a story that ends with blindness. Because blindness in itself is An End.

The sidewalk reads, “Every 7 seconds someone in the U.S. goes blind.” As a writer stumbling across this story, I ask, “And then what happens?” The answer is that nothing happens. Nothing could happen. You’ve gone blind. There’s nothing left.

The sidewalk reads, “A child goes blind every minute,” and I ask, “And then what?” Again, the sidewalk doesn’t offer an answer. The answer is implied. The child suffers. The child is broken and miserable. The child doesn’t make friends. Without Delta Gamma’s intervention, the child will not be cured and restored to a happy, sighted life.

Perhaps my readings of these sidewalk scripts seem drastic, but they are the readings of a frustrated writer. I am tired of this story of blindness. It’s old, worn-out, and sterile. It produces nothing but fear and exhaustion. I am afraid of how quickly it gains power, and I am exhausted by how often I must fight it.

Let’s try a simulation. Can you remember the happiest day of your life? Can you wrap your mind around the beauty of that happiness? I’m sure you can; we all can. We think of first kisses, wedding days, new jobs, new babies, published poems, and graduations. Now, imagine the world telling you, “No, you weren’t really happy.” Every time you insist that, yes, you were happy then, the other storytellers reply, “No, honey, no you weren’t. You just thought you were.”

Adichie says that this is the power of the single story – the ability to supplant another’s story with your own, to say, “My version of you is better than your version of yourself.” She tells her audience at the 2009 TED Conference that, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” The single story of the sidewalks turns blind people into medical statistics. It replaces their ability to laugh, fight, love, feel with a magnified, defective eye. In this story, there are no blind characters, because to be a character, one must have a life. This is not a tale of blind lives.

I want to live in a world that lets people speak for themselves. I want to exist in a place where someone will believe me when I say I’m happy and unbroken. I know that my experience of blindness cannot stand for all experiences of blindness, but I want mine to count. I want to advance as many stories of blindness as I can.

Finally, I want it to rain. Is that too much to ask?

5 thoughts on “Walking on Words

  1. Wow. I absolutely LOVE this concept of “a single story.” If more people understood the dangers behind single stories, the world would be a better, smarter, more understand place. I honestly think one of the goals of literature (and art in general, I suppose) is to reveal the dishonesty of single stories.

    Thanks for the post! It gave me a lot to think about.

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