A pair of history professors named Davis appeared on campus together. One was our own Dr. John Davis, and the other was his guest lecturer and friend, Dr. Stephen Davis, who is a specialist at the University of Kentucky in the history of South Africa.
Before his lecture, Dr. Davis was extremely curious about the Literazi reading program and the selection of books, also asking me how my wife picks her bedtime books since she just completed Nelson Mandella’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I told him that I have kept her in books for some time now with Literazi selections as well as the Hunger Games paperback trilogy recommended by our computer professor, Kristen Lancaster.
Our guest’s curiosity was very appealing and genuine. He could have been poring over notes or getting his thoughts together; instead, he was engaging the reading culture going on here.
Once he started his lecture, it was obvious that this would be an intriguing hour. How surprising it was when he argued that Long Walk is not clearly an autobiography, a biography, or history. For a book to be history, the words and deeds recorded need contextual corroboration. Simply put, the historical process asks for witnesses to not only the facts but the context as well. Dr. Davis wasn’t saying that Long Walk hadn’t been fact checked, but that the facts in the book were selected and presented to sell books in the Western world, thus the many cultural details that Mandela would never have included for readers at home because they would already know them.
Then too, the second half of the book, as Dr. Davis explained, presents Mandela more as the face of a movement rather than either a biography or autobiography. “Mandela knew this and sacrificed himself for the sake of the movement,” Dr. Davis said, also adding that the book is largely shaped by interviews of Mandela by Richard Stengel of Time Magazine. This was by design. Another flavor of the book, Dr. Davis says, is the self-help message combined with the political message.
In no way does Dr. Davis minimize the book: “It’s a wonderful book, a great book. Everyone needs to read it. A world leader like Mandela comes along perhaps only once a century.” Dr. Davis merely says that it’s important to understand the criteria for a work being history, biography, or autobiography, and that Long Walk is a compilation of so many editorial voices that the book needs to be seen in light of its purpose, which is to present Mandela as the face of a movement.
Several attending the session debated briefly what a history actually is. Again, Dr. Davis said that the facts of the book are correct. The point lies in the defined criteria of a particular type of writing, and Dr. Davis has a fascinating way of laying out those criteria while holding forth the greatness of Mandela’s massive 656 page tome.