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Mohammed Bashir Salau

The two versions of the autobiography that Nicholas Said published offer insight into 19th-century conditions in five continents as well as insight into life as a child, slave, manservant, and teacher. As a child in the 1830s, Said was enslaved in Borno, marched across the Sahara Desert, and passed from hand to hand in North Africa and the Middle East. After serving as a slave in various societies, Said was freed by a Russian aristocrat in the late 1850s after accompanying the aristocrat in question to various parts of Europe. In the 1850s, Said also traveled as a manservant for a European traveler to South and North America. Ultimately he settled in the United States, where he authored two versions of his autobiography, served as a teacher and soldier, got married, and disappeared from sight. This article compares the two versions of the autobiography that Said published, provides an overview of Said’s life, charts the development of scholarly works on Said, and draws attention to the primary sources related to the study of Said and his autobiography.

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Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.