by John Henrik Clarke
Joel Augustus Rogers researched, wrote, and published more than ten volumes on the Black man in world history at his own expense because he could not find a reputable publishing house willing to print his material. Twenty-two of the years Rogers spent traveling as a leading Black newspaper correspondent from 1917-1966 were also devoted to researching Black history in six languages and sixty countries.
J.A. Rogers and his work is practically unknown on the island of Jamaica, the land of his birth. Like so many other competent Caribbean intellects whose career flowered in the United States, he is considered to be part of the radical Black intelligentsia that began to emerge early in the 20th century and whose work and activity brought into being the period referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1930. This was a period of proclaiming “Black is Beautiful” more than a generation before the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. It was also a period of African consciousness and a Pan-African effort to show that Africans living in various parts of the world shared the same common historical origins and the same problems with oppressors.
Joel Augustus Rogers researched, wrote, and published more than ten volumes on the Black man in world history at his own expense because he could not find a reputable publishing house willing to proint his material. Twenty-two of the years Rogers spent traveling as a leading Back newspaper correspondent form 1917-1966 were also devoted to researching Black history in six languages and in sixty countries.
Most of the total life of J.A. Rogers was spent in extensive research in order to show that the African personality not only made history but to some extent determined the direction of history. In many ways, J.A. Rogers called to our attention the neglected fact that for most of the years African people have been on this earth, they have been free of foreign rule and foreign domination. This was his mission. It is also the essence of the legacy that he left for African people everywhere.
J.A. Rogers devoted at least 50 years of his life to research about great African personalities and the role that they have played in the development of nations, civilizations and cultures. His two-volume work, World’s Great Men of Color, is singularly his greatest achievement. In his lifetime his books did not reach a large popular reading audience. All of them were privately printed and circulated mainly in the Black communities. He died, unfortunately, on the eve of the “Black Studies Revolution.” Mr. Rogers had already delivered what some of the radical Black students were demanding. He had looked at the history of people of African origin, and he had shown how their history relates to the history of mankind.
A number of books have validated the early claims of J.A. Rogers, who started his research at a time when a large number of African people had some doubts about their contribution to human history. In books like Blacks in Antiquity by Frank M. Snowden, Jr. (1970), The African Genius, by Basil Davidson, The Pre-history of Africa, by J. Desmond Clark (1970), Topics in West African History, by A. Adu Boahen (1967), Introduction To African Civilizations, by John G. Jackson (1970), and Great Civilizations of Ancient Africa, by Lester Brooks (1971), these doubts are put to rest.
In a recent paper by Professor Keith E. Baird, attention is called to how and why Africa was lost from the respectful commentary of history:
Until quite recently it was rather generally assumed, even among well-educated persons in the West, that the continent of Africa was a great expanse of land, mostly jungle, inhabited by savages and fierce beasts. It was unthought of that great civilizations could have been born on this continent where monarchs ruled with might and wisdom over vast empires. It is true that there were some notions current about the cultural achievements of Egypt, but Egypt was conceived of as a European land rather than a country of Africa. Even if a look at an atlas or globe showed Egypt to be in Africa, then popular thought immediately saw in the Sahara desert a formidable barrier and a convenient division of Africa into two parts: one, north of the Sahara, was inhabited by a European-like people of high culture and noble history; the other, south of the Sahara was inhabited by a dark-skinned people who had no culture, and were incapable of having done anything in their dark and distant past that could be dignified by the designation of “history.” Such ideas, of course, are far from the truth, as we shall see. But it is not difficult to understand why they persisted, and, unfortunately, still persist in one form or another in the popular mind.
The critics of Africa forget that men of science today are, with few exceptions, satisfied that Africa was the birthplace of man himself, and that for many hundreds of centuries thereafter, Africa was in the forefront of all world progress.
Europeans have long been in contact with Africa, that is, North Africa. The names of Aesop and Memnon of Terance and Cleopatra are the names of Africans who have figured in the legend and literature, the arts and history of Greece and Rome. Indeed, the land of Africa was a land of wonders for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and this to such an extent that among them it was a proverb that out of Africa there is always something new. The concept of “darkest Africa” refers to the comparative ignorance of Europeans regarding that continent and its peoples over the last four centuries. An English writer, Jonathan Swift, made a sharp but witty comment on his fellow Europeans’ lack of knowledge of Africa when he wrote:
- Geographers in Africa maps
- With savage pictures fill their gaps
- And o’er uninhabitable downs
- Paint elephants instead of towns.
There is another reason why the people of Africa, with the notable exclusion of Egypt, were depicted as uncivilized and lacking in cultural attainments. A number of pious people in Europe would have been struck with horror if they knew of the cruel and bloody acts of their countrymen in the course of the inhuman slave trade. Ruthless European adventurers promoted the hunting down of men, women and children like beasts, and the destruction of complete villages in order to capture the inhabitants and sell them like cattle. Therefore, slave-traders would invent fantastic tales of savagery about the Africans so that their capture and their transportation to labor on the plantations of the Americans would appear to be acts of Christian concern and high minded enlightenment.
In the books of J.A. Rogers an attempt has been made to locate Africa’s proper place on the maps of human geography. That is what his life and research was about.
The distinguished African-American poet, Countee Cullen, began his poem “Heritage” with the question “What is Africa To Me?” Rogers’ book extends the question by asking “What is Africa to the Africans?” and “What is Africa to the World?” His books also answer those questions.
In the monograph on “The Significance of African History” the Caribbean-American writer, Richard B. Moore, observed:
“The significance of African history is shown, though not overtly, in the very effort to deny anything worthy of the name of history to Africa and the African peoples. This widespread, and well-nigh successful endeavor, maintained through some five centuries, to erase African history from the general record, is a fact which of itself should be quite conclusive to thinking and open minds. For it is logical and apparent that no such undertaking would ever have been carried on, and at such length, in order to obscure and to bury what is actually of little or no significance.
The prime significance of African history becomes still more manifest when it is realized that this deliberate denial of African history arose out of the European expansion and invasion of Africa which began in the middle of the 15th century. The compulsion was thereby felt to attempt to justify such colonialist conquest, domination, enslavement, and plunder. Hence, this brash denial of history and culture to Africa, and indeed, even of human qualities and capacity for ‘civilization’ to the indigenous people of Africa.”
According to all of the evidence we now have, we now know that mankind started in Africa. In his study, The Progress and Evolution of Man in Africa, Dr. L.S.B. Leakey states that: “In every country that one visits and where one is drawn into a conversation about Africa, the question is regularly asked, by people who should know better: ‘But what has Africa contributed to world progress?’ The critics of Africa forget that men of science today are, with few exceptions, satisfied that Africa was the birthplace of man himself, and that for many hundreds of centuries thereafter, Africa was in the forefront of all world progress.”
The southern origins in North African civilizations have been established; here, I am only alluding to some of the proof. In his book, Egypt, Sir E.A. Wallis Budge says: “The prehistoric native of Egypt, both in the old and in the new Stone Ages, was an African, and there is every reason for saying that the earliest settlers came from the South.”
There are many things in the manners and customs and religions of the historic Egyptians that suggest that the original home of their prehistoric ancestors was in a country in the neighborhood of Uganda and Punt. (The biblical land of Punt was in the area now known as Somalia.) The civilization of Egypt lasted longer than any other civilization known to man-about 10,000 years. This civilization reached its height and was in decline before Europe was born.
In Section One of his book, World’s Great Men of Color, Mr. Rogers calls attention to the great personalities in Africa, before the birth of Christ, who influenced early Europe and all the known world of their day. In Section Two he writes about a little-known aspect of history, that has only recently come under investigation by a few scholars, that is, the impact of the African personality on Asia. In Section Three the biographies range from the emperors of Ethiopia’s last Golden Age to leaders of the resistance movements against the Europeans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Until near the end of the 19th century the African freedom struggle was a military struggle. This aspect of African history has been shamefully neglected. I do not believe the neglect is an accident. Africa’s oppressors and Western historians are not ready to concede the fact that Africa has a fighting heritage. The Africans did fight back and they fought exceptional well. This fight extended throughout the whole of the 19th century. This fight was led, in most cases, by African kings. The Europeans referred to them as chiefs in order to avoid equating them with European kings. They were kings in the truest sense of the word. Most of them could trace their lineage back for more than a thousand years. These revolutionary nationalist African kings are mostly unknown because the white interpreters of Africa still want the world to think that the African waited in darkness for other people to bring the light.
The land of Africa was a land of wonders for the ancient Greeks and Romans…it was a proverb that “out of Africa there is always something new.”
In Volume 11 of his main work, World’s Great Men of Color, J.A. Rogers’ life-long research into the role that personalities of African descent have played in the development of world history. In this field of biographical research he journeyed further and accomplished more than any other writer before his time. He was particularly astute in looking at the neglected aspect of history. In this volume his main areas of concentration are Europe, South and Central America, the West Indies and the United States. Except for Europe, the personalities whose lives are revealed in this book had an impact on the geographical area that is referred to as the “New World.”
In Part One, which deals with the great Black personalities who influenced Europe, Mr. Rogers calls attention to the fact that Europe did not emerge in the years before and after the establishment of Christianity independent of itself. A large number of personalities whose ethnic origin was outside of Europe made contributions to European history and culture. Some of the most illustrious of these personalities were Black or people of mixed African and European ancestry. The continuity of this influence is shown in Part Two that deals with “South and Central America.”
In the short years since the death of J.A. Rogers in 1966, there has been a revolution in new research and scholarship relating to these still developing areas of this hemisphere. Some of the old research, long ignored, has been reconsidered. New scholars, Black and White, have emerged with a broader view of the interplay of people and cultures in the making of the so-called “New World” before and after the appearance of the Europeans. There is in this new scholarship a reoccurring fact that western academicians have been ignoring, or denying for years. This fact relates to the evidence of the pre-Columbian presence of African people in South and Central America, and in the United States.
In Parts Three and Four of his book, Mr. Rogers shows that Africans were far from being passive about their plight in the West Indies and in the colonies that became the United States. The slave systems and the attitude to support them was slow in getting under way. In the meantime, the Africans were a part of other developments. Nearly all of the personalities in this book were involved in a struggle against several of the many forms of racism. There is no way to completely understand the impact of the African personality on the Western world without understanding this fact. There is also a need to understand racism itself as an evolving issue in Western social thought.
There is now an international struggle on the part of people of African descent against racism and for a more honest look at their history. On university campuses and in international conferences, they are demanding that their history be looked at from a Black perspective or from an African-centric point of view. This has taken the struggle against racism to the world’s campuses, where the theoretical basis of racism started. This has helped to create new battle lines and a lot of fear and frustration on the part of White scholars who still do not recognize that removing the racism that they created is the healthiest thing that present-day Black scholarship can contribute to the world; that in the cry for Black History, Black people are saying a very powerful, complex, yet simple thing: “I am a man.” The struggle against racism all along has been a struggle to regain the essential manhood lost after European expansion into the broader world and their attempt to justify the slave trade. This struggle has brought us to where we are now. From our present position Black people will go onto another stage, much higher and more meaningful for mankind. By reclaiming their own humanity, I think they will make a contribution toward the reclamation of the humanity of all mankind.
In many ways this is what his book is all about, and this is what the life and research of J.A. Rogers was about. In more than forty-five years of travel and research, which spanned two generations, he, more than any other writer of his time, attempted to affirm the humanity of the African personality, and to reveal 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 to the world.
1Abstract, THESIS, “Joel Augustus Rogers: Popularizer of Black History,” by Lawrence Watson, 1978, Cornell University, (in pursuit of a Masters Degree in African and African-American Studies) c. January, 1978.