All Our Names is a novel that traces identity. While it obviously traces the identity of names, such as stated in the title, the novel also highlights a topic particular to this course, the danger of a single story.
First of all, the story is told from two perspectives, regarding one character, Isaac. While both Helen’s story and Langston’s story is told blended into the story telling of present and past Isaac respectively. Both Helen and Langston share the extent of their history, telling about their family and often sharing anecdotes, while Isaac rarely opens up. When Helen finally reads Isaac’s file, there was only a single piece of paper with his basic information: name, birth date and why he was in the United States. She claimed, “In comparison, Isaac’s single-page life story had seemed like a blessing when I first saw it” (98). Similar to the fatal single story referenced at the end of Things Fall Apart, Helen goes on to describe Isaac’s file, “The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would’ve changed” (98).
Helen knows that there is so much more life to Isaac then that is presented in the file. But just as many of those represented from Africa are today, their stories lack individuality and identity when presented in the western world. Most of the western world’s perspective is that all of Africa is war-torn, violent and poor. Chimamanda Adichie highlights these issues in her TEDtalk “The Danger of a Single Story” and the website, Africa Is a Country, published an article about “Telling ‘the African story’” ( can be found here: http://africasacountry.com/the-responsibility-of-journalists/).This theme is essential to understanding this course and African literature as a whole. While every story may be different, and more complicated than others, everyone has a past and a story to be told.
From its title and synopsis, “Things Fall Apart” looks to be the usual story of white men swiftly conquering an African society by surprise. Chinua Achebe’s actual story was not the case. I found it interesting that Achebe portrayed colonialism as a gradual, multi-dimensional process rather than a sudden defeat. This process can be seen as Achebe progressively introduces missionary characters addressed as “Mr.,” a Western title.
The first “Mr.” to appear in the book is a Mr. Kiaga, an African convert from a distant clan who leads the Christian mission in Mbanta. Under the new Christian faith, osu, or outcasts, were suddenly seen as equals. This confuses both the villagers and us readers, especially with the display of an African man as a main missionary figure.
After Okonkwo’s return to Umuofia, we encounter Mr. Brown, a white missionary. His mission stresses inclusiveness and equality, and under his supervision, Christianity becomes a safe haven and opportunity for the villagers previously punished or ostracized by the clan’s traditions. The prospect of social elevation and abolishment of customs such as mutilating dead children and leaving twins to die puts colonialism in a positive light.
However, Achebe’s stance on colonialism becomes clear when Mr. Brown is replaced by another white missionary named Mr. Smith. Achebe describes this “Mr.” as one who “saw things in black and white. And black was evil.” (184) This portrayal of the European missionary is what we as readers expected from the beginning. Unlike Mr. Brown, Mr. Smith is the foreigner who is highly critical of the Ibo people’s past traditions.
White missionaries do eventually beat down the traditions and beliefs of the Umuofia clan, but not without inner conflict among the clan members. Okonkwo, the protagonist who is difficult to sympathize with, angrily defends his clan’s traditions. Conversely, the “misters,” who range from benevolent to brutal, show the spread of Christianity as both a positive and negative force. Ultimately, I believe that Achebe’s goal was not to show how unfair the colonial force was. Instead, he stressed the internal conflict and made readers feel as the villagers did: torn between the promise of a new system and the ruthless destruction of their cultural tradition.