Synopsis of From Superman to Man

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Most of the passengers had retired to their sleeping cars when Dixon, a Pullman porter, settles down in the smoking car to read Race Prejudice by French sociologist Jean Finot. Translated into English in 1906, the book is an attack on scientific racism. A passenger wanders in to ask Dixon about the next station and comments on the book. The passenger notes that he read the original text in French, and Dixon says, “I have read it in French, too!” They continue the conversation in French. Dixon shatters the passenger’s expectations, as well as the readers’, as he reveals that he studied French at Yale and fine-tuned his command of the language when he lived in Bordeaux for two years. The passenger gets off at the next station, and Dixon picks up his book and continues to read.

After a while, he sets the book down to think. A passenger in pajamas and slippers enters the car. Dixon recognizes the man who, that afternoon, had been engaging in a discussion of race with another passenger. Dixon overheard the man say, “The ‘nigger’ is a menace to our civilization and should be kept down. He is a caricature, and no good can result from his ‘butting in’ our affairs. Would to God that none of the brood had ever set foot on the shores of our country.” Based on the remainder of the conversation, Dixon correctly assumes that the man is a Southern Congressman.

The man sits down to smoke a cigarette, and Dixon produces a lighter. The passenger tells him a joke that features chicken-stealing, watermelon-eating Black people. When he notices Finot’s Race Prejudice, he asks about it. Dixon hands him the book, and the passenger leaves through it and asks, “Do you believe all these impossible views about the equality of the races?”

“No, sir, I do not believe in the equality of races. As you say, it is impossible.”

The passenger asks why.

“Because there is but one race—the human race.”

“What do you call yourself?”

“An American citizen,” Dixon replies.

The Congressman presses the point: “Do you believe the black race is the equal of the Caucasian?”

Dixon emphasizes the dubious anthropological findings about the number of races. “Huxley named 2 races, Blumenbach, 5, Burke 63, while others, desiring greater accuracy, have named hundreds. Lamarck, in speaking of the human race, says, ‘Classifications are artificial, for nature has created neither classes, nor orders, nor families, nor kinds, nor permanent species, but only individuals.”

When the passenger asks if the Negro race is intellectually equal to the Caucasian race, Dixon consults his notebooks and recites quotes from various White scientists, believing that their opinions would be more palatable to the racist Congressman than quotes by Black authors. He explains that given the influence of several generations of “beneficent culture” and education, all people would be equal in terms of intellect, although variations among individuals would still exist. He quotes Finot: “All peoples may attain this distant frontier which the brains of the whites have reached. The conclusion, therefore, forces itself upon us that there are no inferior races and superior races.”

Incensed, the Congressman interrupts. “That’s all nonsense. Tell me, has the Negro race ever produced a Julius Caesar, a Shakespeare, a Montezuma, a Buddha, or a Confucius?”

Dixon answers the question by mentioning great leaders such as the Egyptian ruler Kafur, the Russian military strategist Abraham Hannibal, and the Sierra Leonian barrister and Chief Justice Samuel Lewis. In later books, Joel A. Rogers (the author of From Superman to Man) expanded the list of prominent Black people to include some well-recognized people of color. He also added others who the public does not typically regard as “Black” even though they had Black ancestors.

· Imhotep, Egyptian “Prince of Peace” and “Father of Medicine”

· Cleopatra, Egyptian Queen

· El Glaoui Pasha, Moroccan “Black Panther”

· Alexander Puskin, Russian novelist

· Alexandre Dumas, French novelist

· Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haitian leader

· Booker T. Washington, American industrial educator

· Matthew Henson, American polar explorer

· Cheops, Egyptian monarch

· George Washington Carver, American agricultural chemist

· Aesop, Greek Fabulist

· Ludwig van Beethoven, German composer

· Makeda, Queen of Sheba

· Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain

During the three-day train ride from Chicago to California, Dixon refutes each of the Congressman’s offers to “prove” that persons of color are inferior to Whites. These topics include:

Slavery: In response to the argument that slavery proves that Black people are “inferior,” Dixon retorts that people of many nations have been enslaved. Over time, these people, who have been subjugated and dehumanized over generations, will come to be regarded as inferior. He quotes from Memoirs of a White Slave: “Just catch a stray Irish or German girl and sell her—a thing sometimes done—and she turns a ‘nigger’ at once, and makes just as good a slave as if there were African blood in her veins.”

Blacks who “pass” as whites: “In a country where a drop of Negro blood, more or less visible, and a ‘kink,” more or less pronounced, in the hair, may altogether change the current of one’s life, what can you expect?”

“One Drop of Blood Rule”: “By what law of reason can you call a man fifteen parts Caucasian and one part Negro a Negro? There is only one race—the human mind.” Dixon quotes Finot: “Human variety is a more truthful title.” He concludes: “I think the first step toward the abolition of our caste system will be the abolition of the terms Negro, African, Afro-American, colored race, and so on, using instead plain American.

Acceptance by black persons of the word “Nigger”: “The surest way of nullifying a nickname is to call yourself by it.”

Lynching: “How we shudder at the barbarity of the pagan who, 2,000 years ago, used to burn Christians alive! Yet we pass almost unnoticed the burning of Christians by Christians today.”

Inadequate Media Coverage “The press is the greatest propagator and maintainer of color prejudice. Anything unfavorable to the Negro is prominently displayed, while favorable things are given scant mention.”

Interracial Marriage: “The right to select one’s mate is the most sacred of individual rights.” Moreover, Dixon contends that uniting the races though mixed-race children may lead to more acceptance and less discrimination.

During their conversation, Dixon rebukes the Congressman for his lack of civility and respect in asserting his superiority in black porters’ presence. “The mere fact of a man’s proclaiming his superiority is in itself an indication that he feels it cannot speak for itself.” As the train approaches the next station, Dixon concludes: “I am confident that every argument brought forward to prove Negro inferiority is wrong: there is no bad trait possessed by the Negro which cannot be paralleled by the white man. In short, ‘that black is not so very black, nor white so very white’; that the Negro is disliked, not so much for his imputed bad traits, as for the color of his skin and the nature of his hair.”

Rogers’s little book was priceless because he was delivering enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (remember the beer summit) wrote a book extolling Rogers’ attempt to educate readers about black history. Gates described Rogers’ “game plan”: to “proudly claim for the black race any man, woman, or child, including gods and goddesses, in the pages and paintings of history who manifested traces of African or ‘Negroid’ ancestry. Textbook examples were the Russian novelist Alexander Pushkin and Alessandro de’ Medici, as well as Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dumas.”

In an introduction to his book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, which addresses some of the claims Rogers made in his book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, Gates wrote: “Did he sometimes embellish what he had found? Yes; he wasn’t above shock journalism. Did he miss key details? Absolutely. His style was brief and to the point, using a minimum of words and ambiguity so that the “facts” could speak for themselves.”

Yet Gates acknowledged that:

Rogers’s little book was priceless because he was delivering enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization. Deep in his bones, Rogers knew what a lie that was, and he used every ounce of creative energy he had to expose the twin fallacies on which it was based: racial purity and white supremacy. For African Americans of the Jim Crow era, Rogers was their first black history teacher.

Other Posts in this Series:

The Beer Summit: America’s Hesitancy to Talk About Race

Lies and Incivility in Congress Before the Age of Twitter

A Fearless and Penetrating Discussion of America’s Greatest Problem: Race

Synopsis of From Superman to Man

It’s Not Easy as Black or White

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