Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Fifty years after the Civil War ended and over one hundred years ago, Joel Augustus Rogers, a Black intellectual, tackled race issues in a manner that we can still learn from today. In 1917, Rogers self-published From Superman to Man, a novel that methodically refuted arguments about the inferiority of Black people. The book was billed as “A Fearless and Penetrating Discussion of America’s Greatest Problem.” The premise of the book was that if Americans understood history from the perspective of a Black person, the myths of racial inferiority and white supremacy would be shattered. Rogers explained how many of the world’s great “White” leaders were people of color.
While he was writing Superman, Rogers was a Pullman porter on trains originating in Chicago. His status as a porter allowed him to witness interactions between the Black porters and the White passengers. Rogers explained that although he was disappointed that the University of Chicago rejected his college application, he received an excellent education on the trains: “I have had the first-hand opportunity to study human nature as few people have. A Pullman car’s contents, changing daily, gave me a chance to see many different kinds of people in many different kinds of moods, and enough things happen on a Pullman train to let me see many human emotions expressed that I never thought existed.” During long journeys across the country, White passengers tended to ignore the porters until they needed assistance. They did not hide their conversations from them. When passengers noticed the otherwise invisible servants, they made a sport of ridiculing and emasculating them. These experiences allowed Rogers to learn the basis of his passengers’ prejudices.
After working as a Pullman porter for six years, Rogers had amassed enough information to counter all of the arguments he had heard on the train. In newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper that porters distributed at stations across the South, he read stories about Congressmen who condoned lynching and other atrocities.
Rogers read about scientific racism that “proved” Black people were inferior based on their brain size. He wrote: “I was aghast at what I found. No people on earth, I felt, could be so bad as these writers pictured Negroes. So I started to dig. What I found changed me entirely.”
Rogers read Thomas F. Dixon. Jr.’s book. The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (the book that inspired the movie Birth of a Nation). He discovered that a “drop of Negro blood” made a person black in the law’s eyes. He also learned that Dixon advocated the deportation of all black people to an all-black nation in Africa. These realizations caused him to abandon his dream of becoming an interior decorator and dedicate his life to rectifying these misconceptions and untruths that undermined the humanity of Black folk.
His first draft was a failure: “I wrote what I thought would please the publishers and everybody. But on reading it over, I was so disgusted with its cowardice that I tore it to bits. ‘The hell with them,’ I said. ‘I’m going to write what I damn well please.’” He framed the book as a novel starring a Black porter (ironically named Dixon), an intellectual with an above-average aptitude for debating racial issues and reciting long passages of relevant texts. Dixon, a Yale graduate and world traveler, gets into a debate with a racist Southern Congressman and wins each argument single-handedly. He proves that there is but one human race and that many great leaders are of African descent. Dixon tells the Congressman: “The science of inequality is emphatically a science of white people. It is they who have invested it, set it going, who have maintained, cherished and propagated it.” By the time the train reaches California, Dixon has convinced the legislator to reassess his racist position.
‘The hell with them,’ I said. ‘I’m going to write what I damn well please.’”
The book became a compendium of scholarly material that readers could consult when faced with unfounded claims of racial inferiority. But it was written in a conversational style that held the attention of the reader. A critic from the Boston Transcript wrote: “If this book could be placed in the hands of every creator of public opinion in the United States, it might bring about a revolution in the country’s attitude toward the Negro. The argument for the rights and better treatment of the different so-called races is indisputable. The author’s breadth of research, store of information, fascinating style, and convincing logic are notable.”
The arguments are still compelling today.
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