Introduction: Moving Beyond the "Usual Suspects"

Laura J. Mitchell and Andrea Felber Seligman 

     Professional historians have a long, complicated relationship with biography, whether in classrooms, libraries, archives, or the public sphere. Conventional biographies—the trajectories, motivations, and major accomplishments of public figures—feature regularly in lists of bestsellers, popular favorites, major prize winners, and critically acclaimed titles. Ron Chernow's 2004 book, Alexander Hamilton, was catapulted into the limelight after being adapted into a hit Broadway musical, securing an enviable position on the New York Times best-seller list for more than sixty weeks by the end of 2016.1 Academic historians have, however, often kept such books at arm's length: few such best-sellers are written by scholars with academic jobs; graduate students imbibe conventional wisdom that biographies make for bad dissertation topics, and seasoned teachers say that biographies are hard to teach with because they tend to be too long and too limiting to anchor the broad-ranging, thematic questions we typically seek to address in class. So historians skirt around books that sell, books we know people read, perpetuating a distance between "biography" and "history" that frames instruction in both high school and college classrooms.

     This irony is compounded by the fact that many teachers strive to humanize history for their students by introducing individuals, families, communities, lived experience, and emotion to enliven narratives, contextualize motivation, and explain change and its consequences. Such attention to the human scale of history is especially important given today's current political climate, which intensifies the need to de-construct generalizations, note exceptions, and interrogate the basis of "othering."2 This Forum suggests that biographies offer unique opportunities to combine narrative history with explicit attention to the thinking skills that are central to our discipline.3 Recent scholarship has transformed the genre, democratizing and expanding a form once reserved only for the study of well-known political and cultural leaders. With new and increasingly diverse biographies available, there are exciting possibilities for humanizing high school and college classes while further developing students' analytical skills.

     In this introduction, we briefly outline changing practices of biographical scholarship since the 1990s and connect that literature to the study of world history. Given the increasing wealth, diversity, and sheer number of new biographies, a single Forum in this journal cannot address the entirety body of work. The four papers here do, however, establish parameters to guide further reading in the topic and to facilitate the incorporation of biographies—of both well-known and ordinary people—into world history classes. What's more, these papers take readers into regions and topics that connect directly to themes and processes central to world history but that tend not to receive as much coverage in survey courses. By looking beyond the usual Atlantic maritime empires or modernity centered in the global North, this Forum enriches our view of the world through attention to individual lives in unfamiliar or unexpected places.

Established Tools, New Biographies, and Global Contexts

     The flourishing of new biographies has been shaped, not surprisingly, by general trends in historical research. Over three decades of microhistories—alongside parallel efforts to uncover subaltern, unnamed, or forgotten peoples' lives through oral history, social history, archaeology, and historical linguistics—have deepened the pool of "acceptable" biographical subjects and significantly expanded the treatment of individual lives in their broader historical contexts.4 By the end of the 1990s, interventions from feminist scholars, race and ethnic studies, subaltern studies, and area studies productively diversified the genre so that biography is no longer only the purview of mostly male, mostly white, political leaders. Recent methodological trajectories also blurred boundaries among microhistory, life history, and social history, further challenging the notion that biography applied only to the powerful, or the already famous.

     One important example of such "ordinary biography" is Charles van Onselen's The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894–1985.5 The result of a collaborative oral history project, the book captures the energy and insights of an especially productive period of activist scholarship and teaching. Equally remarkable, it represents a major methodological move by a prominent Marxist social historian who intentionally wrote a biography—not a microhistory or life history—of an individual previously unknown to historians or general readers.6 By framing the book as a biography, van Onselen made a significant political claim: although unknown, Kas Maine was not unremarkable; his life of hard work and dignity was as deserving of being singled out as the lives of political leaders, both Black and White.

The government teacher as mediator of a "superior" education in Colesberg, 1849-1858

Helen Ludlow*

History and Division of Social and Economic Sciences at the Wits School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand


This article is set in the socially fluid context of a northern frontier town in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony. It examines the identity of James Rait, the young teacher at Colesberg Government School from 1849-1858. Rait was charged with implementing the complex curriculum of the New System of state education which had been introduced to the colony in 1839. Both the curriculum and textbooks were strongly rooted in Scottish educational discourses and this article investigates the teacher as mediator of a particular construction of knowledge and dispositions. It reflects on this role as the teacher who taught over 100 children of diverse cultural, class and racial backgrounds. It also examines the teacher's attempts to manage his growing incapacity to sustain a respectable manly identity. This was because of the incommensurate demands of his career and family on his ailing body and limited income. Disease can be seen to feminise the body; and while illness increasingly removed Rait from his classroom, his wife and particularly his female assistant were to bridge the domestic and working worlds and make up for his deficiency.


Protest by Potchefstroom native location's residents against dominance, 1904 to 1950

Fanie (N.S.) Jansen van Rensburg*

Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Pretoria




This article indicates the importance of a thorough study of local sources on protest action by township residents in Makweteng (earlier known as Potchefstroom's native location) against oppressive laws and policies in South Africa. Although the term 'grassroots support' only became a common one much later in South Africa's history, the study of local documents indicates the protracted broad swell of dissatisfaction among black South African citizens against legalised segregation and later apartheid. In the case of some individuals and local organisations these views articulated with protests on a national level. This article covers the period 1904 to 1950 and looks at the strenuous efforts by white authorities to dominate this township on a municipal level; the limited influence of the native advisory bodies and localised national organisations in resisting this control; and the singular abilities and contributions of Lazarus R. Muthle and James Z. Mdatyulwa in Potchefstroom's protests. It also indicates how this protest gradually helped to build the basis for encompassing resistance, including resistance of an intellectual nature, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Keywords:Potchefstroom; native location; advisory board; apartheid; protest; Muthle; Mdatyulwa