This essay deals with the relationship between historiography and various forms of biographical study – in the context of Western history but especially that of African studies. First, it charts how, earlier in the twentieth century, structuralist perspectives led to a disconnect between biography and Western-history writing, arguing that narrative and biography were among structuralism’s first casualties. However, subsequent genres in historiography, such as the history of daily life, women’s history, and African American history, helped to resurrect the interest in the study of individual lives. In addition, the subjective orientation inherent in post-modernism encouraged (but also potentially complicated) a focus on the persona. The essay discusses the historical evolution of biographical study and its various forms, as well as theoretical issues such as the relation with psychology, the ‘hero’ concept, the multi-layered issue of context, the distinction between biography and life-history research and the concept of agency. It then confronts the nihilistic challenge posed to biography by post-modernism, arguing the importance of the notion of ‘self-fashioning’ (especially in an African context) and querying the nature of the ‘self’ in the context of Western and African history. The essay charts the birth of modern African biography and life-history research, whose roots go back to the eighteenth century but which came into their own with the development of academic African studies after World War II. The subsequent expansion of Africanist biographical research is discussed including in the fields of prosopography, women’s life history, and social history. The fragmentation of modern historical scholarship and the linkages with daily-life history and microhistory are outlined, including their importance in encouraging biographical study of different types of African (historical) actors. The final sections discuss the issue of representivity vs singularity of biographical subjects and introduce the different case studies of this volume.
Barthélémy Boganda, the principal anti-colonial politician in Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic) during the 1950s, was an extraordinary character. Little known in the Anglophone literature on Africa, Boganda developed into an exceptional orator and agitator who was politically unassailable by 1951. Orphaned by the violence of French colonialism, Boganda had been picked up by a colonial patrol in the rainforest and put into missionary care (1920). A good student, he gained a first-rate education that culminated in his ordination as Catholic priest (1938). In the mid-1940s, Boganda fell out with his superiors; his clashes with colonial administrators proved to be a catalyst for his subsequent political career. This chapter analyses the nature of Boganda’s personality and comportment against the backdrop of two issues: the trauma of his childhood years and the religious-cultural registers, as represented by precolonial cosmology and involving beliefs and values that Boganda inculcated during childhood. The chapter thus analyses his political style against the background of the mythological trickster figure, which, together with personal psychological traits, fed the nature of his charismatic leadership. In this way, Boganda’s life encapsulated both the horrors, tragedy, and emancipatory possibilities of colonialism in Equatorial Africa.