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  • Reclaiming the Black Past: The Use and Misuse of African American History in the Twenty-First Century by Pero Gaglo Dagbovie
  • Chanté Baker Martin
Reclaiming the Black Past: The Use and Misuse of African American History in the Twenty-First Century. By Pero Gaglo Dagbovie. (London and New York: Verso, 2018. Pp. xiv, 224. $26.95, ISBN 978-1-78663-203-6.)

In this study, Pero Gaglo Dagbovie explores how “spokespersons and public figures outside of the ranks of professionally trained historians” have “at least as much (if not more) influence on the general public’s impressions of black history than the vast majority of historians of the black past do” (p. xii). Dagbovie argues that these influencers have huge sway in shaping current discourses around the black past.

The opening chapter evaluates President Barack H. Obama and how he “interpreted, portrayed, sampled from, and even manipulated African American history,” tactics the author claims have been largely ignored by scholars (p. 5). Dagbovie traces the evolution of Obama’s “calculated” rhetoric, pointing out how his manner of addressing black history made him a master at “style-shifting” (pp. xiii, 15). These switches often resulted in Obama rendering a benign treatment of black history to white people and an often scolding account to black people.

Obama’s strategic rhetoric is also part of Dagbovie’s argument in chapter 2. Here, the author presents how long-standing debates regarding the relevance and longevity of Black History Month appear in contemporary conversations. As Dagbovie rightly contends, current discussions join ongoing conversations that originated with Negro History Week. The push to extend the week to a longer observance is rooted in the Black Power era, when activists saw Negro History Week as an opportunity for a temporal acknowledgment of black Americans’ contributions and for a formal inclusion of these accomplishments in American history. Opponents disagreed with elevating past achievements and favored honoring “‘living black history’” (p. 58). Dagbovie contends that a focus on the present informs current efforts to promote the future—a push known as Black Futures Month. [End Page 541]

In chapter 3, Dagbovie analyzes how certain commercially successful films have rendered aspects of the black experience. For example, he rightly critiques the failure of the film The Help (2011) to explore the real danger of sexual assault and other forms of harassment experienced by black domestic workers, and Dagbovie offers insight into the criticism given to Django Unchained (2012) by its director’s claim that the tale is more a hero story than an effort to fully engage slave experiences. Dagbovie concludes, “Those who teach American and African American history must be aware of how the US motion picture industry interprets the past because . . . many of their students will shape what they think they know about the past based upon these portrayals” (p. 113).

Fictive interpretations of the past also inform the work of black comedians. In chapter 4, Dagbovie discusses black humor and the ways in which African American “jokesters” use humor as both a coping mechanism and a vehicle for social commentary (p. xiii). He credits Paul Mooney for routinely incorporating moments “when blacks overcame unimaginable forms of oppression” to both entertain and educate his viewers (p. 121). This commitment to telling “‘truth in jest’” is the approach taken by Mooney’s successors, namely, Dave Chappelle. Chappelle’s parodies of slavery and the civil rights movement afforded him critical acclaim. The chapter also discusses the work of Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, and others who use humor as a tool for analyzing black experiences.

In chapter 5, Dagbovie explores how past wrongdoings committed against African Americans have been addressed by politicians and the United States government. The chapter contextualizes official apologies related to African American history and notes that attempts by lawmakers to offer them have been rife with contention. Although skeptics believed apologizing for slavery and racial discrimination “would have constituted an admission of guilt and could have been used as fuel for the reparations movement,” Dagbovie notes that politicians have apologized for specific acts (like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment), have granted posthumous pardons for black people unjustly punished, have advocated for legislation honoring victims...


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