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Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture.

by Howard Dodson with a foreword by Wynton Marsalis; essays by Amiri Baraka, Gail Lumet Buckley, John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Annette Gordon-Reed, and Gayraud Wilmore National Geographic Books, February 2003, $35.00, ISBN 0-792-26982-9

An interesting project for an amateur historian would be to chart the juncture at which the history of blacks in America became palatable only if framed as celebration, with certain aspects of misery dressed up for the party. The volume Jubilee, whose title reveals its festive disposition, has been published by the National Geographic Society in conjunction with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

An historical specimen distinctly in the celebratory mode, Jubilee takes one of the most wretched, tragic and deservedly lamentable chapters in the annals of human existence, and mines it for happy facts and triumphant episodes fitting for Black History Month pageants and desktop calendars.

It has been said that history is the story of the victors, or the most agreed upon lies, but these things are said by writers and historians with an eye towards rehabilitating the historical record in the interest of those subjected to the terrors of their times. Author and Schomburg Director Howard Dodson wants to offer "a new perspective on slavery and the slave trade" that does not focus on blacks as victims." Somehow the mission smacks of a conservative ethos, reactionary against what some have deemed the victim mentality of African Americans. History in the interest of self-esteem (think of the Afrocentric "our people were kings" tendency) inevitably forsakes rigor.

The star-studded list of contributors gives the book a bit of weight, but tellingly seems to point the reader towards the writers' major work: we'll have to go elsewhere for real scholarship. It's the Hollywood approach to slavery--melodrama replaces pathos, and a happy ending is guaranteed. The most well-digested morsels of African-American history are regurgitated, along with portraits of all the familiar heroic figures from Crispus Attacks to Sojourner Truth. We revisit all the familiar cultural practices from the blues to the ring shout to jumpin' the broom. What is not well-known is expressly confused: images of slavery from South America and the Caribbean are included with no attention paid to the vastly different experience of slavery in those places, arrogantly appropriating their history as part and parcel of our own. All of it begs the question: We know this history, now what will we do with it? It seems Jubilee wants nothing more than a prominent place on your coffee table. Thus the unique history of blacks in America is shattered to form another shard in the sad mosaic of American mediocrity in general.

Complacency in everyday life and scholarship dishonors the ancestors it is meant to represent. In one sense, the tome is one more lame example of the cultural tendency it seeks to celebrate. And yet we want their suffering as our badge of honor.
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Author:Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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