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.
“Pigmented humanity becomes lighter in the temperate zone, while unpigmented humanity becomes brown in the tropics,” Dixon continued. “One summer’s exposure at a bathing beach is enough to make a life-saver darker than many Indians. The true skin of all human beings is of the same color: All men are white under the first layer.”
This lesson for the senator was clearly an example of the enormous gathering of facts and information Rogers had compiled from his extensive travels, which took him to the four corners of the globe as he sought to chronicle the African experience and minimize the impact of race on social and political relations. One continuing narrative he asserted in most of his work was the global presence of African blood, concluding it was absolutely boundless and could be found in most people of the world.
Joel Augustus Rogers was born Sept. 6, 1883, in Negril, Jamaica. What little we know of Rogers’ early years is gleaned from his books, but it usually occurs only after his arrival in the United States in 1906, and of course, by then he would have been a young man. But there must have been at least some aspects of a formal education. Either that or he was a very disciplined self-learner because by 1917, he had published his first book, “From ‘Superman’ to Man,” while residing in Harlem, which would be his home for many years.
“Despite his light complexion and mulatto background,” wrote the esteemed Runoko Rashidi, whose life replicates Rogers’ in so many fascinating ways, “Rogers bitterly discovered that Black people were all treated the same, no matter the complexion.” But, as Rashidi concluded, Rogers “rejected the dogma of white superiority, even as a child. In a class and color conscious Jamaica, the young Rogers observed, ‘I had noticed that some of my schoolmates were unmixed Blacks and were, some of them, more brilliant than some of the white ones.’”
This Week in Black History
Feb. 24, 1999: Rap artist Lauryn Hill wins a record five Grammy Awards—the most by a female artist to that date.
Feb. 25, 1964: Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship.
Feb. 28, 1984: Michael Jackson wins eight Grammy Awards—the most ever in one night.
The whole notion of white superiority was banished from his thinking and, consequently, set him on a lifetime pursuit to show the genius of African people and how their presence can be found among the most gifted people of the world and, in many instances, exposing their racial origins.
In two volumes of “World’s Great Men of Color,” Rogers offered perhaps a definitive narrative of his research, and in volume two, we learn that the great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin was of mixed ancestry, and so was the poet Robert Browning, Alexander Dumas and Hannibal, to name but a few of the countless notables he listed.
Probably no book caused as much controversy as his “The Five Negro Presidents” (1965), including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and Warren G. Harding, all of whom, he contended, had Black ancestors or were of African descent.
There was nothing new about these assertions because he had made similar claims in other publications, more notably in “Your History,” a book beautifully illustrated by George Lee and one that approximates what Fatunla is currently doing.
This book was republished in 1983 by W. Paul Coates and his Black Classic Press. Coates, in the book’s introduction, does a good job of elucidating Rogers’ legacy, particularly the role his wife, Helga, played in keeping his self-published books in print. “Today, J. A. Rogers is being rediscovered by a new generation,” Coates wrote. “The Black stride for self-awareness prominent in the 1960s and 1970s and favorable reappraisal of Rogers and his work are largely responsible for this rediscovery.” Among the books Black Classic Press has reissued are “The Ku Klux Spirit” and “The Real Facts About Ethiopia,” as well as the abovementioned “Your History.”
Rogers seemed most enthusiastic about “Nature Knows No Color Line: Africa’s Gift to America, Sex and Race,” which is three volumes, and “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,” and for many years, all of these books have been popular among African American readers.
Six years after Rogers’ death in 1966, the late Dr. John Henrik Clarke summarized his mentor’s incomparable contributions in the closing paragraph of his introduction to “World’s Great Men of Color, Vol. 2.” Rogers, Clarke wrote, “in more than 45 years of travel and research (two generations), he, more than any other writer of his time, attempted to affirm the humanity of the African personality, and to show the role that African people have played in the development of human history. This was singularly the major mission of his life; it was also the legacy that he left to his people and the world.”