AuthorAguoru, Adedoyin
Position"Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela," Olusegun Obasanjo


This paper, in furtherance of existing discourses on postcolonial Africa, attempts to delve into a predominant concentration in critical and scholarly studies in biographical literature, which is the image of the self. The portrayal of self-i mage and nationalism is critical to biographical studies in Africa. (1) In this regard, autobiography as a subgenre and narrative subcategory of biographical literature is viewed as a cultural practice and expression. (2) This view of biographical literature, particularly those works which fall under the narrative subcategory of autobiography, appears to have its origins around the second half of the twentieth century. This perspective is articulated or implied by many, including Jean Starobinski, who asserted, "Autobiography is certainly not a genre with rigorous rules. It only requires that certain possible conditions be realized, conditions that are mainly ideological (or cultural)." (3) It is also in James Olney's explanation that "autobiography occupied a central place as the key to understanding the curve of history, every sort of cultural manifestation, and the very shape and essence of human culture itself." (4)

In this respect, therefore, critical and scholarly publications have concentrated on examining identity construction in autobiographical works as it relates to racial backgrounds, temporal and spatial coverage, religious affiliation, and sexual or gender orientation. A long list of such publications is given by Olney (5) These and related publications are generally critical writings on England, the United States, and France. While these publications might not have come up with specific theoretical and methodological viewpoints in their examinations, they have arguably been able to demonstrate the presence of psychological and sociological frameworks as aspects of culture in identity construction and the narrative recollection in biographical literature. Oriaku, for instance, gives the inkling of this in his identification of the two perspectives from which self-image can be constructed in autobiographical writings. He explains that the subject could emphasize the environmental and sociocultural factors which influence his personality formation, or his uniqueness and the inability of the environment to mold him. (6) These two perspectives are also similar to what Wang and Brockmeier give as independently oriented self and interdependently oriented self. (7) In the same vein, Wang and Brockmeier explain that "concepts of the self and practices of remembering not only construct and constitute each other; they are also bound into the material and symbolic orders of the overarching cultural system." (8)

Nevertheless, this view of biographical literature, as cultural expression and practice, is not limited to culture, as every human population is socially, politically, and psychologically distinct, as Wang and Brockmeier demonstrate. Indeed, culture transcends the above to include the totality of ethnic/racial, psychological, attitudinal (individual and collective), political, and all other social concerns and practices that may be thought of. It also includes the technological, creative, and intellectual, thereby covering what Castle calls the documentary view of culture. (9)

With this broad sense of cultural presence and influence in biographical literature, the self-image could be identified with sociocultural and psychological indicators and variables such as a belief system, political posture, ideological persuasion, and any social affiliation that may be the foreground or describe the subcategory of life writing. That is, the subject identifies with factors like socioeconomic class, profession, career, religious affiliation, racial/ethnic orientation or background, marriage and family life, politics, sex or gender orientation and experience, time, place, personal convictions or experience, and, in fact, an intended audience. The magnitude of this cultural affiliation, therefore, considerably informs the portrayal of the character, thematic concerns, narrative mode and technique, and use of style and language in biographical literature.

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, is an autobiographical narrative of Nelson Mandela's involvement in the struggle against racial segregation of blacks in South Africa. It cohesively narrates his activities before his twenty-six-year incarceration in prison and his symbolic long journey to freedom as an individual while leading all South African Blacks and Coloureds toward their collective freedom.

My Watch is a three-volume autobiographical narrative of the life and times of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Despite the international, continental, and nationalistic scope of the work, the narrative is an explicatory text. Obasanjo, having served the nation as Head of State twice at critical points of national crisis, understands that even when he is not on duty he has a permanent commission to "watch" over the nation called Nigeria.

Within the African parlance where the works examined here are situated, these elements play out in such a manner that "... the national character or spirit of peoples is observable and embodies the literary output of each nation." (10) These elements have an enormous influence on the biographical narratives that portray national ideology, national characters, national settings, and aspirations, as well as plots and themes developed from national legends and myths. (11) The Olaudah Equiano story, which is the earliest autobiographical slave narrative account, has these as threads running through the narrative, (12) and Soyinka's biographical collection is yet another folio with these political and national elements. (13) Kuforiji-Olubi (Nigeria) and Elizabeth Bagaaya (Uganda) are women and nationalists whose biographical writings reposition gender bias and political communication in Africa. (14) The foregoing, thus, corroborates the argument of this paper, whose aim is to examine the interplay of national character and self-image in the texts in question and whose objectives include: to point out the nature of the national character in the selected texts (either as practice and policy or recognition and value judgment); to examine national character as a factor in political culture for identity construction and orientation about African leaders; to examine the construction of the self-image of the African leaders across different categories and perspectives of identity; to discuss the roles of the subjects as they relates to the national character of their respective countries; and to interrogate the authors' modes of narration in presenting the personal identities of their subjects--narrative, persuasive, argumentative, or expository.


Jan E. Stets and Peter J. Burkes model of identity (2000), James Paul Gee's identity theory (2000), and Gerard Genette's narratorial functions (1980) are adopted for this inquiry. Stets and Burke's model of identity is a self-image or self-identity theory. It is based on the scholars' critical interrogation of the two theories of identity in social psychology. The two, identity theory and social identity theory, are melded in a bid to evolve a "general theory of the self" that can attend to both macro and micro processes of identity simultaneously. Stets and Burke identify and critically engage three areas of central concern in these two theories of identity which are germane to this inquiry:

... the different bases of identity (group, role, person), the different foci of examining activation and the salience of an identity, and the cognitive and motivational underpinnings of the two theories. (15) The first area, the different bases of identity, is about how the self classifies itself in specific ways as it relates to other social categories. These specific ways of self-image formation and construction applied here are group, role, and person identity. Group identity is concerned with "how people come to see themselves as members of one group/category (the in-group) in comparison with another (the out-group), and the consequences of this categorization." (16) This principle is used to examine how the self is identified by a national character within a racial and/or political in-group. Role identity is concerned with the self "occupying a particular role and the behaviors that a person enacts in that role while interacting with others." (17) This is applied to discuss the role of the self in politics as it relates to the national character prevalent in their political domains or sovereign states. Person identity, or core identity, is about "the set of meanings that are tied to and sustain the self as an individual." (18) This base of identity focuses on how the self-image perceives and presents itself relative to its group and role identity. This identity can be likened to what, in summary as it were, the autobiographer claims to be.

The second area of concern, generally referred to as salience, presupposes that a subject's role identity is made manifest by a situation. Thus, it focuses on how and when identity becomes activated. This shows that there is always a factor that informs the participation of a person in an in-group and the role the person performs within it. It is in light of this that Stets and Burke explain that it has to do with "understanding what makes a particular social categorization of the self (or other) relevant in a situation." (19) In this paper, therefore, this area of concern, salience, is taken to be the national character or a significant event that leads to the connection of a subject to the national character. This is because it is a national character that informs a political leader's affiliation with a circle or group with a political scheme or interest. It is also the national character that determines the actions and inactions of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT