You are here

Taxis to Postcolonialism

Elliot James
January 5, 2015
Elliot James 

What do taxis have to do with decolonization? As it turns out, plenty! Elliot James, a graduate student in the Department of History, is writing a history of unregistered "minibus" taxis in South Africa entitled "Sithutha Isizwe (We Drive the Nation): The (Un)Making of the Taxi in South Africa." James became interested in the history of informal public transportation during his first visit to Cape Town, South Africa during an undergraduate study-abroad program. Although he was frequently warned by locals not to take minibus taxis, which were supposedly too dangerous, James noticed that certain areas of the city were only accessible via minibus taxi. His interest in the politics of public transport increased when he learned that minibus taxis were developed by a group of black entrepreneurs in the 1970s, making them one of a very few black-owned and -run businesses in apartheid-era South Africa.

Now that he had a dissertation topic, James just needed a graduate program! The University of Minnesota made a great fit for James, with its strong reputation in African and gender history and its focus on interdisciplinary methods. He was eager to work with Professor Allen Isaacman, an expert on the history of Mozambique, and to engage with the Interdisciplinary Center for the study of Global Change (ICGC), which facilitates scholarly exchanges with the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Over the course of his graduate career, James's project has shifted from a purely social historical perspective to one that is more cognizant of the politics of doing history; his work engages with a set of post-colonial critics and theorists who demand that scholars consider the role played by historians and the discipline of history itself in shaping (post)colonial spaces.

Now that he is approaching the end of his graduate studies, James has several pieces of advice for students beginning their studies at the U of M. First, take notes! Record lectures, talks, seminars (always with permission, of course) so that you can create your own "personal archive." Make sure you store your notes and recordings in a safe and accessible place. Dissertation ideas evolve considerably over time, so he recommends keeping a journal so that you can keep track of changes and sparks of inspiration. Finally, don't forget to enjoy the Twin Cities! James especially enjoys the arts scene in the city, citing live music performances and visits to the Walker Art Center as favorite study-break activities.