Giving the eminent historian and anthropologist J.A Rogers his due
Herb Boyd | 2/27/2014, 9:48 p.m.
Readers of the Amsterdam News might have noticed the recent addition of our column titled “Our Roots,” featuring illustrations celebrating Black history and created by Tayo Fatunla. These poignant and insightful vignettes reminded me of the ones that used to appear in Black publications “back in the day,” particularly the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender; many of them containing the wisdom of J.A Rogers, the eminent historian and anthropologist who rarely has received his due.
Find out more: Thanks to the tireless efforts of Black Classic Press many of Rogers’ books are back in print and young readers will find Your History, a combination of drawings and captions accessible and very entertaining form of education.
Discussion: Race was a very important concept in Rogers’ research and it might be useful to discuss how his ideas stand up today, given all the advances in anthropology and racial studies. Also, it might be illuminating to talk about Rogers’ early years in Jamaica and tease out some comparison between what he experienced there and what he encountered in the U.S.
Place in context: At the time Rogers’ was traveling around the world it must have been quite arduous, and you wonder about the expenses he incurred as well as the cost of publishing his own books since no other press seemed interested.
During my undergraduate days at Wayne State University in Detroit, I was a history and anthropology major who approached both departments to study Rogers with the hopes of using his life for a future dissertation. None of the historians or anthropologists—all of them white—had ever heard of him, and I found it useless and futile to convince them otherwise.
Their ignorance of his career and contributions, the scope and depth of his research only pushed me to find out more about him, with even passing thoughts of a book on his life—an idea that was soon as stillborn as the dissertation plan. Even so, I found a way to integrate his works into my intellectual pursuits and to bring some of his phenomenal research into the classroom.
As part of my first forays into the academy, I resorted to Rogers’ “From ‘Superman’ to Man,” which was first published in 1917 and is essentially an exchange on a train between Dixon, an African-American sleeping car porter, and a white Southern senator. My intentions were to enlighten the students in the same way that Dixon educated the senator, who was bloated with white supremacy and the idea that Black Americans were less than human.
After a moment of intemperate words between them about race and the senator’s insistence on labeling Dixon a nigger, the porter calmly and in a courteous manner told the senator: “I have found, sir, that any division of humanity according to physique can have but a merely nominal value, as differences to physique are caused by climate conditions and are subject to a rechange by them. As you know, both science and the Bible are agreed that all so-called races came from a single source.