Storytelling and Social Change: The Impact of Politics Within Art

Evie Crossland

The desire to tell stories is a quintessential element in defining our humanity. In the early days of human history, cavemen created drawings depicting barbaric battles between humans and animals, and were used as effective ways of communicating stories about survival and life.  For millennia, we have used storytelling as a tool for evoking emotion, whether that be to induce pity, elicit laughter, or to convey a moral. In the modern age, storytelling has been harnessed to instrumentalise social change, and to critique the oppressive power structures which demonise individuals classified as ‘other’. Writers such as Lorraine Hansberry, and Harper Lee, both created art which was, and remains, significant in challenging racist ideologies towards African-Americans; stories invaluable for emphasising the racial injustice of their respective contexts. Yet, there is also an insidious aspect within the act of storytelling. Whilst storytelling can certainly be harnessed to address societal injustices, it can also be weaponized to reinforce the oppressive power structures that poison society. As Western History books show, stories are often told from one narrative, one experience and one group of people. Narrative craft is not only an artistic endeavour, but a pursuit which can hold deeply political implications.

Writing during the American Civil Rights movement, Lorraine Hansberry and Harper Lee both used storytelling to address the institutional racism of mid-20th century America. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the small Alabama town of Maycomb during the early 1930s, illuminates the racially-prejudiced Southern Legal system of the Jim Crow era, when the character of Tom Robinson, a black man, is falsely accused of rape. Lorraine Hansberry, the first female African-American playwright to have her play performed on Broadway, centres her play, A Raisin in The Sun, on voicing the marginalised African-American citizens within Southside Chicago, during the 1950s. Both texts are vital pieces of literature to better understand the racial oppression and discrimination against African-Americans within 1930s, and 1950s America. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written one-hundred years before Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, ‘fuelled’ the Abolitionist movement, and aided in imagining what it may be like to walk in the shoes of a slave; the importance of providing a platform for marginalised stories cannot be overstated. Today, the staging of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play Elmina’s Kitchen in London’s West-End, a play exploring the lives of a black-Caribbean family living in Hackney’s ‘murder mile’ during the early 2000s, is a powerful example of the imperative to showcase diverse stories. As the first play to be staged in London’s commercial West End by a black writer, Kwei-Armah describes himself as a ‘political playwright. Art is my tool for change – incremental change.’


Whilst storytelling is undoubtedly a powerful tool for challenging the status quo, it can also be exploited to establish a ‘single’ view of history; preventing tangible strides towards justice. As Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, states, ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ Understanding this danger, Adichie’s postcolonial novel Half of a Yellow Sun denounces the single-story, and is told through perspectives of three distinct characters, who each witness the brutal fighting of the Biafran War. As reader, we learn of each character’s unique opinions, and vicariously experience their successes and failures. Each character acts as a piece in understanding the history of the war, and together they help shape our perception of the war as a whole. Western-historical bias arguably provides the most pervasive example of the danger of the single story. When it comes to teaching about the realities of British colonial rule, there is ‘near silence’ discussed on the matter within the UK’s National Curriculum for Key Stage 3. Within American History education, discussions on white conquest are excluded from the most ‘critical point’ of America’s founding, ‘when it is most relevant but also most embarrassing.’ The texts exclude the Native American resistance movements of the 1780s, instead celebrating ‘the ordinances of 1785 and 1787 — blueprints for westward expansion and death knells for Indian sovereignty.’ It is vital that stories are told from a holistic perspective, encapsulating each voice affected by an event. The exclusion of this risks perpetuating the cycle of distorted historical perspective, one that typically excludes the voices of marginalised individuals.


Evie Crossland

Featured image courtesy of Andrew Seaman via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

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