Joel Augustus Rogers, September 6, 1880/3 – March 26, 1966, the Harlem-based Jamaican-American author, journalist, and historian who contributed to the history of Africa and the African diaspora.
After settling in the United States in 1906, he lived in Chicago and then New York City. He became interested in the history of African Americans in the United States.
His research spanned the academic fields of history, sociology, and anthropology.
He challenged prevailing ideas about scientific racism and the social construction of race, demonstrated the connections between civilizations, and traced the achievements of ethnic Africans, including some with mixed European ancestry.
He was one of the earliest popularizers of African and African American history in the 20th century.
Joel Augustus Rogers was born September 6, 1880 or 1883, in Negril, Jamaica. One of eleven children, he was the son of mixed-race parents who were a minister and schoolteacher.
His parents could afford to give Rogers and his ten siblings only a rudimentary education but stressed the importance of learning. Rogers claimed to have had a “good basic education”.
Rogers emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1906, living briefly in Chicago before settling in Harlem, New York. He became a naturalized citizen in 1916 and lived in New York most of his life. He was there during the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American artistic and intellectual life in numerous fields. He became a close personal friend of Hubert Harrison, an intellectual and activist based in Harlem.
Rogers emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1906, living briefly in Chicago before settling in Harlem, New York. He became a naturalized citizen in 1916 and lived in New York most of his life.
He was there during the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American artistic and intellectual life in numerous fields.
He became a close personal friend of Hubert Harrison, an intellectual and activist based in Harlem.
While living in Chicago in the 1920s, Rogers worked as a Pullman porter and as a reporter for the Chicago Enterprise.
His job of Pullman porter allowed him to travel and observe a wide range of people.
Through this travel, he was able to feed his appetite for knowledge, by using various libraries in the cities which he visited. He self-published the results of his research in several books.
From “Superman” to Man
Rogers’ first book from “Superman” to Man, self-published in 1917, attacked notions of African inferiority. From “Superman” to Man is a polemic against the ignorance that fuels racism.
The central plot revolves around a debate between a Pullman porter and a white racist Southern politician.
Rogers used this debate to air many of his personal philosophies and to debunk stereotypes about black people and white racial superiority.
Rogers continued to develop ideas that he first expressed in “Superman” to Man. He addresses issues such as the lack of scientific support for the idea of race, the lack of black history told from a black person’s perspective and the fact of intermarriage and unions among peoples throughout history.
The porter’s arguments and theories are pulled from a plethora of sources, classical and contemporary, and run the gamut from history and anthropology to biology.
Rogers continued to develop ideas that he first expressed in “Superman” to Man.
He addresses issues such as the lack of scientific support for the idea of race, the lack of black history told from a black person’s perspective and the fact of intermarriage and unions among peoples throughout history.
The book reveals Rogers’ position on Christianity. When the second main character, the Senator asks, “Then you do not advocate Christianity for the Negro?”.
The main character Dixon then answers, “The real Christianity, yes. The usual Christianity of the white Gentile with its egotism and self-interest, no.”
But,” objected the senator, strenuously, “Christianity has done a great deal for the Negro. Look what solace it was to him in slavery.”
“Solace! Solace! did you say? To enslave a man, then dope him to make him content! Do you call THAT a solace? Would you call a chloroform burglar, for instance, a solace?
No, that’s the work of an arch-devil and a cowardly arch-devil at that. The honest fact is that the greatest hindrance to the progress of the Negro is that same dope that was shot into him during slavery.
Many Negro sects, perhaps the majority, never stop to think what they are doing. They have accepted the white man’s religion pretty much in the same manner as, if they had remained in Africa, they would have worn his old tin cans, as a charm.
As I sometimes watch these people howling and hullaballooing, I cannot but think that any other process, religious or otherwise, would have served just as well as a vehicle for the release of their emotions, and that, so far as Jesus is concerned, any other rose by that name would smell as sweet to them.
The same holds true of the poor white mountaineers of Kentucky and Tennessee who are also violently religious and immoral.
The slogan of the Negro devotee is: Take the world but give me Jesus, and the white man strikes an eager bargain with him.
The religious manifestations of the Negro, as a group, need to be tempered with hygiene, in the same manner, that those of the whites need the spirit of Christ.
“Another fact,—there are far too many Negro preachers. Religion is the most fruitful medium for exploiting this already exploited group.
As I said, the majority of the sharpers, who among the whites, would go into other fields, go, in this case, to the ministry. In most Northern cities dinky Negro churches are as plentiful as dinky Negro restaurants.
Many of these preachers are thorough-going rascals who have discovered a very easy way get money and to have all the women they want.
Needless to say, they are a great hindrance to those earnest ones really working for the betterment of their people.
Rogers also had many good things to say about Islam. When questioned about “Mohammedism” by the Senator, Dixon responds,
From what I saw of it in Egypt, Turkey and other Islam countries I think that while its pretensions are lower than Christianity, it is more humane.
Islam is as liberal to its dark-skinned followers as Christianity is illiberal. In fact, every other form of religion is more liberal than Christianity. Ranking next to Mohammed is a Negro, Bilal. Islam knows no other bond but religion.
White, black, yellow, brown, it matters not as long as you are of the faith. Christianity—I speak almost entirely of the Anglo-Saxon brand—likes the Negro only when he is content to be a flunky, just so long and no longer. Islam, with all its faults, on the other hand, inspires him to be a man.
In the 1920s, Rogers worked as a journalist on the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Enterprise. He was a sub-editor of Marcus Garvey’s short-lived Daily Negro Times.
As a newspaper correspondent, Rogers covered such events as the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia for the New York Amsterdam News in Harlem.
He wrote for a variety of other black newspapers and journals: Crisis, American Mercury, The Messenger Magazine, the Negro World, and Survey Graphic. One of his interviews was with Marcus Garvey in prison (New York Amsterdam News, November 17, 1926).
Rogers served as one of few black US war correspondents during World War II.
Rogers also contributed to a syndicated newspaper cartoon feature entitled Your History.
Patterned after the look of Robert Ripley’s popular Believe It or Not cartoons, multiple vignettes in each cartoon episode recounted short items about African Americans from Rogers’ research.
The feature began in the Pittsburgh Courier in November 1934, with art by George L. Lee.
In 1940, the art chores were handed over to Samuel Milai, who stayed with the feature through the rest of its run.
In 1962, the title was changed to Facts About The Negro. The feature outlived its author and continued appearing regularly until 1971, presumably in reprints at the end of the run.
Two collections were published, Your History (1940) and Facts About The Negro c. 1960.
Rogers died on March 26, 1966 in New York City. He was survived by his wife, Helga M. Rogers.
Rogers’ work was concerned with “the Great Black Man” theory of history. This theory presented history, specifically black history, as a mural of achievements by prominent black people.
He devoted a significant amount of his professional life to unearthing facts about people of African ancestry, intending these findings to be a refutation of contemporary racist beliefs about the inferiority of blacks.
Books such as 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro, Sex and Race, and World’s Great Men of Color described remarkable black people throughout the ages and cited significant achievements of black people.
He asserted that several historical figures previously classified or assumed to be “white” (European), including Aesop, Cleopatra, and Hannibal, were “black”.
This was decades before research by later Afrocentric historians (overwhelmingly rejected by specialist consensus) tried to support some of his work.
Rogers commented on the partial black ancestry of some prominent Europeans, including Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas, père.
Similarly, Rogers claimed that several portraits of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a direct ancestor of the British royal family, depicting her with “broad nostrils and heavy lips” indicated a “Negroid strain.”
Rogers’ theories about race, sex and color can be found in his books Nature Knows No Color-Line, World’s Great Men of Color. His pamphlet Five Negro Presidents provided what he said was evidence that some 19th- and 20th-century presidents of the United States had partially black ancestry. His research in this book inspired Auset Bakhufu’s book Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA (1993). Neither of these has gained consensus. Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said that Rogers’ pamphlet would “get the “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,” if one existed.
Rogers’ theories about race, sex and color can be found in his books Nature Knows No Color-Line, World’s Great Men of Color.
His pamphlet Five Negro Presidents provided what he said was evidence that some 19th- and 20th-century presidents of the United States had partially black ancestry.
His research in this book inspired Auset Bakhufu’s book Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA (1993). Neither of these has gained consensus.
Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said that Rogers’ pamphlet would “get the “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,” if one existed.
Rogers surmised that ethnic differences arose from sociological factors.
He believed that such differences between groups were often attributed primarily to “physical” differences such as race.
He deals with the themes of race and sex In Sex and Race and also in Nature Knows No Color-Line.
Rogers’ research in these works was directed to examining migration and movement of populations, and evidence for intermarriage and interracial unions throughout human history.
He contended that it resulted in a black “strain” in Europe and the Americas.
In Nature Knows No Color-Line, Rogers examined the origins of racial hierarchy and the color problem.
He stated that the origins of the race problem had never been adequately examined or discussed.
He believed that color prejudice generally evolved from issues of domination and power between two physiologically different groups.
He thought that color prejudice was used as a rationale for domination, subjugation, and warfare.
Societies developed myths and prejudices in order to pursue their own interests at the expense of other groups.
He was trying to show that there is nothing innate about color prejudice; that there is no natural distaste for darker skin by lighter-skinned people; and that there is no natural aversion for lighter skin by darker-skinned people.
Sex and Race describe Rogers’ theory regarding the origin of the races themselves, claiming that original humans were light-skinned, though similar to black Africans.
One strain became the modern “white” race, the other in Africa becoming black Africans.
All other races are their descendants to greater or lesser degrees. None is regarded as superior to any other.
Within these works, Rogers questioned the concept of race, the origins of racial differentiation, and the root of the “color problem”.
Rogers felt that the “color problem” was that race was used as social, political and economic determining factors.
Philosophy and viewpoint
Rogers was a meticulous researcher, astute scholar, and concise writer. He traveled tirelessly on his quest for knowledge, which often took him directly to the source.
While traveling in Europe, he frequented libraries, museums, and castles, finding sources that helped him document African ancestry and history.
He challenged the biased viewpoint of Eurocentric historians and anthropologists.
Rogers gathered what he called “the bran of history”.
The bran of history was the uncollected, unexamined history of the world, and his interest was the history of black people.
Rogers intended that the neglected parts of history would become part of the mainstream body of Western history.
He saw black inclusion in white historical discourses as helping to bridge racial divides.
His scholarship was meant to shed light on hitherto unexamined areas of Africana history, as well as combat the stereotypes of inferiority that were attributed to black people.
Rogers asserted that the color of skin did not determine intellectual genius, and that Africans had contributed more to the world than was previously acknowledged.
He publicized the great black civilizations that had flourished in Africa during antiquity.
He devoted his scholarship to vindicating a place for African people within Western history. According to Rogers, many ancient African civilizations had been primal molders of Western civilization and culture.
With these assertions, Rogers was also highlighting the absurdity of racial divisions. His belief in one race – humanity – precluded the idea of several different ethnic races.
In this, he was a humanist. He used history as a tool to bolster his ideas about humanism, and his scholarship to prove his underlying humanistic thesis: that people were one large family without racial boundaries.
Rogers was self-financed, self-educated, and self-published. Some critics have focused on his lack of formal education as a hindrance to producing scholarly work; others suggested the fact that he was self-taught liberated him from many academic and methodological restrictions.
Rogers was self-financed, self-educated, and self-published.
Some critics have focused on his lack of formal education as a hindrance to producing scholarly work; others suggested the fact that he was self-taught liberated him from many academic and methodological restrictions.
As an autodidact, Rogers followed his research into various disciplines that more formally educated scholars may have been loath to attempt.
His works are complete with detailed references.
That he documented his work to encourage scrutiny of his facts was a testament to his due diligence, work ethic, and commitment to the world’s history and culture.
Rogers articulated ideas about race that were informed by anthropology and biology, rather than social convention.
He used what he discovered in his research as a tool to express his humanist beliefs and to illustrate the unity of humanity.
He discarded the non-scientific definition of race and pursued his own ideas about humanity’s interconnectedness.
While his work has often been classified as Afrocentric and outside mainstream history, his main contribution to African scholarship was his nuanced analysis of the concept of race.
Legacy and honors
Rogers was a member of professional associations including the Paris Society of Anthropology, the American Geographical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Academy of Political Science.