Joel Augustus Rogers (September 6, 1880 — March 26, 1966) was a Jamaican-American author, journalist, and historian who contributed to the history of Africa and the African diaspora, especially 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 race, demonstrated the connections between civilizations, and traced African achievements. He was one of the greatest popularizers of African history in the 20th century.
Read Joel Augustus Rogers: Negro historian in history, time, and space, free from the Free Library. Early life and education
Joel Augustus Rogers was born 6 September 1880 (some sources say 1883 ) in Negril, Jamaica. One of eleven children, he was the son of mixed-race parents who were a minister and schoolteacher. His parents were not able to afford to give Rogers or his ten siblings more than a rudimentary education, but stressed the importance of learning.
Emigration and career
Rogers emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1906, where he settled in Harlem, New York. There he lived most of his life. He was there during the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American artistic and intellectual life in numerous fields. Rogers became a close personal friend of the Harlem-based intellectual and activist Hubert Harrison.
While living in Chicago for a time in the 1920s, Rogers worked as a Pullman porter and as a reporter for the Chicago Enterprise. His job of Pullman porter allowed Rogers to travel and observe a wide range of people. Through this travel, Rogers was able to feed his appetite for knowledge, by using various libraries in the cities which he visited. Rogers 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. Its title is a twist on contemporary works, both George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman and Nietzsche’s idea of the “Superman.” 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. 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. Many of the ideas that permeated Rogers’ later work can be seen germinating in From "Superman" to Man. Rogers addresses issues such as the lack of scientific support for the idea of race, black historical vindicationism, and the fact of intermarriage and unions among peoples throughout history.
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, he covered such events as the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia for the New York Amsterdam News. He wrote for a variety of black newspapers and journals: Crisis, American Mercury, The Messenger, the Negro World and Survey Graphic. One of his interviews was with Marcus Garvey in prison (New York Amsterdam News, 17 November 1926).
Rogers served as the only black US war correspondent during World War II.
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. Rogers devoted a significant amount of his professional life to unearthing facts about people of African ancestry. He intended 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, all described remarkable black people throughout the ages and cited significant achievements of black people.
Rogers commented on the partial black ancestry of some prominent Europeans, including Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas, pčre. Similarly, Rogers was among those who asserted that a direct ancestor of the British royal family, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had a remote ancestor who was of African origin.
Rogers’ theories about race, sex and color can be found in the books Nature Knows No Color-Line, World’s Great Men of Color and the pamphlet Five Negro Presidents, all of which deal with the ideas of race, sex and color. In the latter, he provided what he said was evidence that there had been 19th and 20th century presidents of the United States who had partial black ancestry. His research was superficial and poorly sourced.
Rogers surmised that a large percentage of ethnic differences were the result of sociological factors. However, in Rogers’ opinion, often the differences between groups were attributed primarily to physical differences such as race. Rogers deals with the themes of race and sex in the eponymous Sex and Race and also in Nature Knows No Color-Line. Rogers’ research in these works was directed to examining miscegenation and how that has left 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. Rogers stated that the origins of the race problem had never been adequately examined or discussed. Rogers believed that color prejudice generally evolved from issues of domination and power between two physiologically different groups. According to Rogers, color prejudice was then used 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. Rogers 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.
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 traveled extensively 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 prove 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. This historical goal made Rogers a vindicationist scholar, attempting to 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 attempting to point out the absurdity of racial divisions. Rogers' belief in one race - humanity - precluded the idea of several different ethnic races. In this, Rogers was a humanist. Rogers used vindicationist history as a tool to bolster his ideas about humanism. Rogers used 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 Rogers' lack of a formal education as a hindrance to producing scholarly work; others suggested Rogers' autodidacticism freed him from many academic and methodological restrictions. He made himself free to tackle the difficult racial issues with which he dealt. 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 not only African people, but the world, its history and culture.
Rogers articulated ideas about race that were informed by anthropology and biology, rather than social convention. He used vindicationism not as end in itself, but as a tool to underscore his humanist beliefs, and to illustrate the unity of humanity as a people. He discarded the non-scientific definition of race and pursued his own ideas about humanity’s interconnectedness. Thus, although the work of Rogers has often been relegated to the controversial genre of Afrocentric 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 such as the Paris Society of Anthropology, the American Geographical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Academy of Political Science.
Rogers, in the words of Dr. John Henrik Clarke, "looked at the history of people of African origin, and showed how their history is an inseparable part of the history of mankind."
Joel Augustus Rogers died in New York on March 26, 1966 in New York City. He was survived by his wife Helga M. Rogers.