Can the Subaltern Speak? by Gayatri Spivak is a piece that focuses on how the experiences and the feelings produced from these lived experiences of marginalized groups are skewed by second hand reports from white academics and media. Spivak’s piece immediately made me think of a Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story”. Adichie explains how listening to other’s ideas of a lived experience, one they have not lived themselves, can produce the ideas of a single story. For instance, when Adichie left her home in Nigeria to go to University in the United States, her roommate was astonished by her. She had asked where she learned to speak English so well and was taken back when Adichie informed her that Nigeria is an English speaking country. She asked to listen to Adichie’s “tribal music” and was very disappointed when she presented her Mariah Carey album. Adichie’s roommate was also surprised to learn that she knew how to operate a stove. You see, Adichie’s roommate had a single story of what Africa and Africans are like; she felt sorry for and pitied Adichie before even meeting her. She had a single story of catastrophe and poverty.
This kind of story stems from the things we hear second hand. Instead of giving the subaltern a chance to tell their own story of the experiences they live themselves, we let others, such as media and academia, tell us what we “should” know about the subaltern. This skews our ideas of what the subaltern’s story actually is. We believe these single stories to be true and when we finally decide to confirm with a subaltern group, often discover that many things are not full truths of a subaltern experience. In Adichie’s case, her roommates single story of Africans produced an idea that feelings other than pity were impossible and that there was no possibility of them being equals as humans.
Much like Spivak’s essay, Adichie addresses the need to harness the voice of the subaltern and give back the ability for these groups to speak on their own lived experiences rather than letting that of white media and academia tell a second hand version that skews the reality of the experience. In the end there is still a question of “can the subaltern speak?” I feel this is a question that has no definitive answer. I say this because if the subaltern do speak, will they even be heard over all the second hand stories that are told so predominantly and loudly? I feel even when the subaltern to decide to tell their own stories, the single stories that have already been told are so deeply rooted and have been told so many times, the subaltern are never heard.