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Über dieses Buch

This collective book offers new insight on the genres of biography and autobiography by examining the singular path of those deemed to be ‘outsiders’, such as Winnie Mandela, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X and Harvey Milk. Its specific focus on these female leaders and civil rights activists, who refused to be constrained by gender, race and class, shifts attention away from the great men of history and places it solely on those who have transformed their personal lives into a fight for collective goals. With an interdisciplinary approach that looks at literature, cinema and cultural studies, Women Activists and Civil Rights Leaders in Auto/Biographical Literature and Cinema argues that life writing is a key source of artistic creativity and activism which enables us to take a fresh look at history.




Women Activists and Civil Rights Leaders in Auto/Biographical Literature and Cinema argues that the recognition of autobiography as activism has paved the way for the biographical turn by highlighting “the capacity of an individual life to reflect broad historical change.” Some historians lament the focus on private life that undermines the “grand narratives” of the past and neglects the importance of historical process by shifting attention away from political developments as well as social and economic dynamics. We posit that life writing—in the form of autobiographies translating the subjective perspective of their author or biographies transcribed by different authors—is a source of artistic creativity that enables us to take a fresh look at history.
Delphine Letort, Benaouda Lebdai

The Lives of Women Activists


Winnie Madikizela Mandela: The Construction of a South African Political Icon

Winnie Madikizela Mandela has authored two autobiographies, Part of My Soul Went with Him (1984) and 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 (2013), which provide valuable historical testimonies about her growing up within the turmoil of South African history. Using her autobiographical writing to shed light on the events that have prompted Winnie Madikizela Mandela to take political action, this essay retraces the construction of the woman’s image as a political icon. Her books portray a woman who has developed her charisma independently of her husband Nelson Mandela, showing how her political views matured and her personal political consciousness evolved.
Benaouda Lebdai

“Revoluting” or Writing? Ahdaf Soueif and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution

Egyptian writer Adah Soueif’s book, Cairo, My City, Our Revolution was written during and soon after the outbreak and first tribulations of the Arab Spring. As both a writer and an activist, she was faced with a dilemma: “I wanted more to act the revolution than to write it.” Commenting upon the different episodes of the revolution, Soueif tries to articulate activism and writing and to come to terms with her role as an artist in critical times. Soueif attempts to define a literary strategy that allows her to convey the immediacy of the events, while finding the right balance to give them a more universal dimension.
Jacqueline Jondot

Autobiography of an Activist: Sophonisba Breckinridge, “Champion of the Championless”

Over the course of her long lifetime, Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866–1948) promoted world peace and international human rights as well as advancing the welfare of women, children, African Americans, immigrants, workers, poor people, and individuals with disabilities. Near the end of her life, she attempted to write her memoirs. Although Breckinridge never completed her final writing project, the unfinished autobiography offers unique insights into how she thought about herself and how she wished to present herself to the world. Breckinridge chose to craft her memoirs as the autobiography of an activist, highlighting the family traditions, parental examples, and childhood experiences that she believed predisposed her toward a life of social activism. With the benefit of hindsight, Breckinridge anticipated her adult activism in her account of her early years. This essay explores the ways that Breckinridge’s lifelong commitment to social justice activism shaped her account of her life.
Anya Jabour

Lean In and Tell Me a (True) Story: Sheryl Sandberg’s Revision of Feminist History

The slogan “the personal is the political” communicates the central place that personal experience has in US feminism; the life stories of women—in conventional biographical and autobiographical books, in film biographies, in talk show formats, documentaries, and, now, in social media—also have a prominent place in US popular culture. These stories are subject to the organizing codes of interpretive communities that must be able to locate the story within an identifiable frame of meaning. This chapter examines Sheryl Sandberg’s multimedia memoir and social movement Lean In as a memoir/manifesto that attempts to reframe feminism in service of the corporation, erasing feminism as a collective political movement and marginalizing working-class women’s stories of gendered oppression.
Tanya Ann Kennedy

Black History in Auto/biographical Texts


The Many Lives of Ida B. Wells: Autobiography, Historical Biography, and Documentary

Wells related her lifelong commitment to anti-lynching campaigns in an autobiography that historians and biographers have thoroughly exploited to reconstruct her persona. The woman’s life story has allowed them to point out the interweaving of personal and political motives behind her consistent engagement with racial issues. This article calls attention to biographical details that shed light on the woman’s character in a context of coercion. The posthumous publication of primary sources, including The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995), and of a list of secondary sources allows for a comparative approach that spotlights different personality traits depending on the authors’ perception of Wells’ role in history as influenced by contemporary scholarship trends. The memory of Wells seems to arouse conflicting interpretations, which she was also victim of during her lifetime.
Delphine Letort

Malcolm X: From the Autobiography to Spike Lee’s Film, Two Complementary Perspectives on the Man and the Militant Black Leader

This paper proposes to analyze Spike Lee ’s 1992 film about the life and death of the black leader Malcolm X in the light of the latter’s autobiography , jointly written by Malcolm X and Alex Haley . While it is a known fact that Spike Lee, and Arnold Perl, who wrote the screenplay, took their cue from the autobiography , it is also clear that the scope of the film, its tone, and the narrative choices made account for the very different feelings readers and viewers experience.
Dominique Dubois

Michelle Obama: The Voice and Embodiment of (African) American History

This article draws upon two biographies of Michelle Obama, Michelle: A Biography by Liza Mundy (2008) and Michelle Obama: An American Story by David Colbert (2009) to relate the life story of the first African American First Lady. They portray an “ordinary” African American woman with an “extraordinary” destiny and use the tension between these two perspectives to outline an exceptional biographical character. Giving insight into a woman’s experience marked by the complex and painful African American history, the biographers have woven her own family story into collective history. As they retrace her ancestors’ perilous lives, from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia to the historical events that took place in Chicago during the twentieth century, they reveal Obama’s symbolic impact on the psyche of many African American families as well as her deep sense of historical responsibility.
Pierre-Marie Loizeau

Ghost Writing and Filming Biography in Twelve/12 Years a Slave

Based on an analytical study of the screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave (1853) by British filmmaker Steve McQueen (2013), this article examines the various filters between Northup’s voice and the readers or the viewers. A close study of the written words and the visuals shows that the enslaved free man’s story can only be recovered through the narratives crafted by others—David Wilson, Dr. Sue Eakin, and Steve McQueen. These documents raise questions of authorship.
Sylvie Charron

Biographical Films and History


Biographical Motion Pictures and the Resuscitation of “Real Lives”

Through an examination of the theoretical debates inspired by the biopic, a genre whose popularity discouraged serious critical endeavors, this article retraces the hagiographic trend of the genre to “Jesus movies” whose symbolical use of Christic light has been appropriated to dignify secular figures. Referring to the adaptation of cinemagician Georges Méliès’s adaptation of Joan of Arc (1900), the essay also posits that key events in the lives of the medieval religious icon resonate with a fairy tale figure like Cinderella. It thereby demonstrates that the hagiographic patterns beneath the coming into being of “extraordinary individuals” date back to the origins of cinema itself.
Taïna Tuhkunen

“Negro Girl (meager)”: Black Women’s In/Visibility in Contemporary Films About Slavery

This essay focuses on two recent British feature films that have documented parts of the history of the African diaspora. Each focusing on a single black historical figure, the films 12 Years a Slave (2013, directed by Steve McQueen) and Belle (2013, directed by Amma Asante) are notable for their black directors and their portrayals of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British and American black slave histories. However, the films’ approaches to the representation of black women vary considerably. “Negro Girl (meager)” explores the problematics of portraying black female agency in these feature films and argues for continued vigilance in the deployment of a black feminist vision.
Lisa Botshon, Melinda Plastas

Queering the Biopic? Milk (2008) and the Biographic Real

Gus Van Sant’s biographical movie Milk raises several questions that are typical of the biopic genre itself, the issue of truthfulness, respect, representation, legacy, and bias. But it also fueled controversy as to the treatment of the queer issue which was considered as far too mainstream by some critics. The mixed feelings come indeed from the tension between exploring a popular genre and representing the queer issue in a transgressive creation both in form and content. This article therefore focuses on Milk’s compliance with the generic frame of the biopic. It also explores the political and poetical Real of the movie Milk and the difficult process of sublimation of history and legacy in a creative process.
Isabelle Van Peteghem-Tréard

In Search of Purcell’s Legacy: Tony Palmer’s England, My England (1995)

As Hermione Lee has observed, “biography is actually a quest for lives that speak to us.” What makes biography and biopics so enduringly popular a genre is that we can connect with someone else’s life and historical age so as to better understand ourselves and our times. The questioning of this postulate is precisely what is at the core of Tony Palmer’s England, My England (1995). It is partly set at the end of the 1960s when a weary actor starts investigating Purcell’s life—of which so little is known. Although Purcell himself remains a shadowy figure, his music proves the driving force of an investigative mise en abyme that ultimately pays tribute to his contribution to English culture.
Nicole Cloarec



Does One Need to Be a Man to Be a Great Man?

Drawing on The Prince (Machiavelli in Le Prince (Il Principe ou De Principatibus, 1532). Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, Paris, 1952), this essay ponders the relationship between history and biography and underlines that the power of “great men” tends to gender history as female. Biopics, in particular, submit history to certain individuals and raise some individuals to historical status. Does the making of “great men” undermine grand history?
Nathalie Prince


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