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Understanding your history



The story of humankind and the world is recorded in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. This means that every moment counts, there is none lesser than the next, and the names that pop up with each passing moment as the achievers of the day, the second, the week or the month get recorded into the annals of time as part of history to be read by the following generations. We take note of events and deeds of men for the sake of posterity, or, as a point of reference meant to help us to avoid committing the same mistakes on another day in the future. We learn from the records of the past to deal with prevailing conditions, but this does not happen in many instances as it is happening at this point. In the middle of a pandemic, the only reports coming in are from the journalists, reporters and media houses across the world. The medical records from past pandemics that make up the medical history of the world are not being referred to at this point in time. One would surely swear that this is the first flu pandemic we have come across in the history of time. The truth however is that we have come across this type of pandemic before and the only problem this time around is the manner of referring to past records. There is little understanding of the realities of history largely to the usual one-sided outlook by the human race when it comes to dealing with issues that have the element of personal interest in them. History then becomes a hard topic to deal with once personal interest becomes part of the recording of history, because then the story of one and not the entire story gets told. This is the reason why the histories of a lot of nations across the world disappeared as soon as the subjugation of others by them through colonialism began. The whole story of history then became a one-sided affair, usually with the oppressor being the teller of the story, meaning that the story of the oppressor was not told in a manner that gave a clear account of what exactly happened. The history of the world thus became polluted with one-sided accounts of events as they unfolded, usually with the one side of the story actually erased from the records. It took the efforts of certain individuals to uncover some of the hidden parts of the history of the world to reveal exactly what happened and to give an account of the achievements made in the course of the occurrence of events. One such figure is Joel Augustus Rogers, born on September the 6th, 1880 and died on March the 26th, 1966. J. A. Rogers was a 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 extensive research, usually self-sponsored, spanned the academic fields of history, sociology and anthropology. His perspectives on history usually challenged prevailing ideas about scientific definitions of racism and the social construction of race as a phenomenon. Unlike the long-held notions on history of the world, his works sought to demonstrate the connections between civilizations, and he traced achievements of ethnic Africans who had conveniently been forgotten by history, including some with mixed European ancestry that had been named without the acknowledgement of their mixed ancestry. Augustus Rogers was actually one of the earliest popularisers of African and African-American history in the 20th century, this perhaps being the direct influence of his active participation in the Harlem Renaissance discussions of the early 1900’s. 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 which he kept close to his heart. Rogers claimed to have had a “good basic education” and emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1906, living briefly in Chicago before settling in Harlem, New York. He then became a naturalised 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 and 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 (former black slaves hired by George Pullman’s company to carry passenger’s baggage, shine shoes, set up and maintain the sleeping berths, and serve passengers on trains) and as a reporter for the Chicago Enterprise. His job of Pullman porter allowed him to travel and observe a wide range of people from different classes, that is, the American middle and upper classes that could afford to board the sleeper trains. Through this travel, he was able to feed his appetite for knowledge, by using various libraries in the cities which he visited. He then self-published the results of his years of individual research as a Pullman porter in several books later. Rogers’ first book From ‘Superman’ to Man, which was self-published in 1917, attacked notions of African inferiority, perhaps tracing its origins in the Harlem Renaissance discussions of the era by such figures as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. du Bois, and others who stressed the equality of the black folk with other races in America, the Diaspora and the other parts of the world. The basic theme in From ‘Superman’ to Man is that of a polemic against the ignorance that fuels racism and the central plot revolves around a debate between a Pullman porter and a white racist Southern politician. Rogers used this debate (in a certain manner similar to Plato’s Euthphyro, which is an inconclusive discussion between a philosopher (Socrates) and a young man (Euthphyro) on the issue of ethics) 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. Rogers continued to develop ideas that he first expressed in From ‘Superman’ to Man over the years with the research culminating in a clear record of black prominent figures as is seen in his publication, Your History from the Beginning of Time to the Present. His work 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 the different peoples of the world throughout history. The book (From Superman to Man) reveals Rogers’ position on Christianity and the beginnings of the Negroes’ leaning towards Islam at the very beginning of the emancipation movement that gave birth to the ideas of such figures as Elijah Mohammed that came to influence Malcolm X. The discussion between the Porter and the Senator is quite interesting with both characters exchanging ideas on Christianity’s suitability for the black folk: 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 a 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?” The black folk of the Harlem Renaissance and the following freedom movements in America were becoming aware of the fact that the greatest hindrance to the progress of the Negro was that the same dope that was shot into them during slavery was still being used as a tool to oppress them and prevent their progress. The reality was that many ‘Negro’ sects, perhaps the majority, never stopped to think what they were doing or what effect what they were being taught had on their lives. It is from this moment of collective introspection that the writings of Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and others were born. The black people and the colonised had accepted the white man’s religion pretty much in the same manner they would have had, had they remained in Africa. Rogers was against the idea of accepting without questioning, pretty much stating that the colonised or enslaved often took in religions that served in their subjugation. He states: “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.” J.A. Rogers spoke of and against the other fact of the period; there were far too many Negro preachers, because he felt that religion was the most fruitful medium for exploiting the already exploited group: the poor black folk of the time. One sees this same attitude in the present times with those preachers that promise ‘supernatural healing and riches’ for their devotees; those radio programme preachers not ashamed of promising heaven on earth to whoever is gullible enough to believe their type of Christianity. As he said, the majority of the sharpers (that is swindler preachers), who among the whites, would go into other fields, usually went, in the case where they lived in black poor communities, to the ministry: this is an attitude that exists in the current society. As Rogers said, “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.” This is a snippet of history one sees coming to life once again with human-trafficker-preachers, Doom-spraying-preachers, I-will-feed-you-snakes-and-rats-preachers, and miracle-money-preachers. As to the progress of the people, they have no concern, only lavish lifestyles and shiny shoes with shiny suits are the point of focus. Rogers speaks of what he saw in his immediate place of habit and compares it with what he saw in Egypt, Turkey and other Islam countries and finds them more suitable for the black folks of America. Of Islam he states: 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. In From “Superman” to Man one finds the reality that the man ranking next in line to Mohammed is a Negro, Bilal. It seems in a sense that Rogers uncovered the fact that in Islam, there is no other bond but religion; there is no concept of race or colour in the religion: the racist idea of white, black, yellow, brown matters not as long as one is of the faith. He argues that in Christianity, particularly the Anglo-Saxon brand, likes the Negro only when he is content to be a servant and a flunky; just so long and no longer. A liberated Christian was not accepted in the times of Apartheid or racist subjugation, he observed. Islam, with all its faults, on the other hand, inspired the black man to be a man who had the power to ascend the social ladder to the best of his potential. There is speak of the ‘Three C’s’ that subjugated the entire Third World and Africa after the 1884 Berlin Conference. Christianise, Conquer, Colonise has always been the language of the oppressor, and ignorance of the real history of the people has always been his best protection. A close reading of the works of people that went out and revealed the truth however opens the eyes of one and makes them aware of the lies being told at a given point in time. It seems that when it comes to the understanding of history, all sides should be given the opportunity to tell their own story and not let their story be told by others. There is always the ‘we and dem’ as much as there is the truth that ‘every Indian wants to be the chief’ when it comes to the writing of history. History has always been written to serve the ideals of its writer and not the others that contributed to ‘his-story’. That is just a plain fact: write your own history and let no one do it for you, otherwise they will write their own story with your name in it as one of the small characters, so J. A. Rogers seems to say. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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