Pero Dagbovie: History, for the Future

February 27, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

Pero Dagbovie is a University Distinguished Professor History, a member of the College of Social Science’s Dean’s Advisory Board for Diversity and Inclusion, and mentor for the College of Social Science Dean’s Research Associate Program as well as an associate dean of the Graduate School at Michigan State University. An expert on African American history, Dr. Dagbovie has written seven books and is the editor of The Journal of African American History, the oldest and leading journal in the field of black history.

Dr. Dagbovie (pictured left) studies more than just African American history. In fact, he studies the history of African American historical scholarship - in other words, how our perceptions of history is constructed by those who research it, write about it and teach it.

Dr. Dagbovie explains, “History is actually very messy. History is not necessarily about finding out the so-called truth, it's about interpreting and portraying things that were said and done in the past to the best of our abilities. Historians try to be unbiased and objective, but none of us can achieve that entirely. It's impossible.”

“But we can strive to be as objective as possible,” added Dr. Dagbovie. “I really enjoy that challenge.”

Dr. Dagbovie’s passion for history started when he was an undergraduate student. Originally an International Relations major, a single black history course changed his academic direction. His interest in the field of African American history centers around the ways that history is interpreted and presented.

“My interest in the social construction of knowledge comes from the fact that I was raised by parents who taught me to be a conscientious critical thinker, and not to accept things at face value,” said Dr. Dagbovie.

“There's two kinds of history - one that's the actual history, things that were said and done that we know by examining primary documents. Then there's the history that's socially constructed by historians. I study both, but I prefer to study the latter.”

Dr. Dagbovie enjoys using Booker T. Washington, among other black historical icons, as a case study to explore how interpretations of history can distort a historical figure. While Washington is widely considered an “accommodationist” by many modern historians (suggesting that he was less progressive that other black leaders during the Progressive Era), Dr. Dagbovie isn’t sold on that interpretation.

“I don't believe that, based upon my examination of the historical record. There's a tendency of historians and textbooks to represent him only from that one side, as opposed to the other dimensions of his life, which were intimately connected to grass-roots black activism.”

Dr. Dagbovie’s most recent book is Reclaiming the Black Past: The Use and Misuse of Black History in the 21st Century (Verso Books, November 2018). The book touches on how, in the twenty-first century, African American history is presented by diverse and contesting interpreters, from museum curators to filmmakers, entertainers, politicians, journalists and bloggers.

Outside of his role as a professor and researcher, Dr. Dagbovie continues to evolve and grow within the MSU community. “I started out as a professor who taught a regular teaching load and mentored undergraduate and graduate students. I then became associate chair and graduate director in the Department of History. After doing that for 5 years, I became an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and I've been there for about 5 years.”

“I've tried to the best of my ability to re-invent myself within the MSU community, to help sustain myself and to continue to grow. I strive to give back to a university and community that has given much to me and molded me in many ways. I've enjoyed all of the roles that I've engaged in, and am excited for what’s to come.”

Learn more about Dr. Dagbovie here.