Guided by the beliefs that stories are cultural and historical formations, and that the stories one tells about oneself are inherently valuable information sources, this study examined the genre of autobiographies written by African Americans, paying particular attention to aspects of resistance, experimentation, and aspirations toward changing the status quo. The data were twenty-eight (28) narratives, evenly divided among the following three categories: autobiographies that represent “classic” African American literature, autobiographies written for audiences of young readers, and autobiographies written by youth.
Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (Engestrӧm, 1987) was the primary theoretical framework that supported this study. The theory was also used as methodology, in that it facilitated an analysis of the stories from the vantage point of components of the activity system, including mediating tools, object, community, division of labor, and rules. In addition, Activity Theory afforded an analysis of both local and distal-level action, and the contradictions and/or tensions that wound themselves through the texts. The study included the close analysis of three focal texts: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (by Harriet Jacobs), Childtimes (by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little), and Signed, the President (by Kenneth Phillips).
Findings showed that the writers employed resistance in many and varied ways, including the re-naming of personas within a book in order to avoid discovery, the evasion of the editorial process in order to fully control one’s own story, and the inclusion of the voices of typically silenced individuals as a form of subversion. The study is relevant to educators who seek to complement their curricula with outstanding narrative nonfiction, especially those educators concerned with the experience of African Americans, from the late 18th-century to the present day. The study also is an example of the use of Activity Theory as methodology applied to the analysis of important autobiographical literature.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2013. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Dr. Lee Galda. 1 computer file (PDF); ix, 229 pages, appendices A-C.
Causey, Lauren L..
In our own words: a cultural-historical activity theoretical approach to understanding resistance within African American autobiographies.
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