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Black scholar seeks to correct
omissions, distortions in history
February 15, 1999
Ask Jeffrey Ogbar what a historian is, and he will tell you that one definition - one that resonates for him - means he has an obligation to search for the truth.
There is a professional obligation. There is a family obligation. And there are obligations to people like Bobby Seale and Ramza Muhammad, people left out of most of the history books of their period.
When Ogbar, an assistant professor of history, looks back on his life, he realizes that the experiences of his parents and his own early experience had an impact on his decision to become a historian. If another definition of historian is one who hears history's strange old song and falls under the spell of that magic, then Ogbar has been a historian since childhood.
"My family was part of the great migration of African Americans to the north," he says. His parents' families on both sides left the South in search of opportunity and freedom from racial oppression. His father's family relocated to Chicago in the 1920s from Louisiana and Kentucky. His mother's family moved to Illinois from Mississippi during the 1940s.
As a child, Ogbar found history's cadence in the stories his aunts and uncles told about their lives and the lives of his ancestors in the South. "Those family testimonies of struggle were the earliest and perhaps the most profound influence on me as a historian," he says.
By the time he reached high school, he had found a circle of friends who, like himself, had discovered personal meaning in history. They soon created their own organization devoted to its study.
But it was not history alone that captured Ogbar's imagination. When he enrolled in Morehouse College, it was as a sociology major. "I became interested in all of the social sciences as a way of understanding larger social phenomena," he says. Those phenomena continue to fascinate him today.
After changing his major to history with a view to attending law school, he was offered a Ford Foundation Fellowship, part of a Morehouse program to encourage undergraduates to pursue graduate work leading to the Ph.D. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history at Indiana University.
Ogbar's dissertation was an exploration of the rise of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party during the 1960s. In the course of writing it he met and interviewed many of the leaders of those movements, including Ramza Muhammad, former official jeweler for the Nation of Islam, and Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Panthers, who is currently a lecturer and community liaison at Temple University.
He came to UConn two years ago, and currently teaches courses on U.S. history since 1877 and the history of African-Americans since the end of the Civil War.
The research Ogbar began for his dissertation remains the centerpiece of his work. He will spend this summer on a fellowship at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, which house, respectively, extensive archives of the Black Panther Party and the student radical movement. By the end of this year he hopes to have completed the manuscript of a book that is an extension of his dissertation.
The book will explore Black Nationalism as a response to social trends in the greater society. "The Black Nationalist movement was always much more central to the lives of African-Americans than it has heretofore been portrayed," Ogbar says. "The mass of black people always wanted equality, but not necessarily complete integration. The central message of the Black Nationalist movement was that there is something intrinsically Black that is worthy of celebration."
Though Ogbar clearly subscribes to that thesis, he doesn't believe Black History Month is necessarily the ideal way to celebrate. "Black History Month comes out of the neglect for black history that white historians have shown in the past," he says, "but while it gives attention to black history, it also compartmentalizes it."
On February 25, he will address that paradox when he returns to his alma mater, Morehouse, to deliver the keynote lecture of that school's Black History Month activities.
Ogbar continues his quest to correct the omissions and distortions about black people that he says have more to do with political agendas than a search for the truth. Teaching, he has found, presents him with the best opportunities to "lift the veil." And at Morehouse that's what he will talk about - the real task that presents itself to anyone who seeks to understand history's lessons. His subject will be "The Task of Historians: Scholarly Integrity, Not Political Agendas."
Another way of looking at it is that he will talk about the obligation he has assumed - family story by family story and interview by interview - ever since he was a child and first fell under the spell of history's strange old song.