Joel Augustus Rogers: Negro Historian in History, Time, and Space

Article excerpt

To fully understand the history, life, and times of Joel Augustus Rogers and his contributions to anti-racist historiography is to grasp how African Americans, as a "racial class and caste", are prisoners of their social existence. This social existence is set within a class relationship that has a dialectic of oppression, driven by domination and resistance to that domination. And it is revolutionary resistance that liberates the dominated class. The social relationship of oppression has its material basis, and that basis has its ideological manifestation. Joel A. Rogers' (1883-1966) life spanned the period in which the material basis of white oppression was solidified between the shadow of slavery and the plantation, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In this period, white capital kept black labor under its heel while refining the powerful ideology of white superiority and black inferiority in mass media, science, literature, theatre, film, and academic scholarship.

In their attempt to reject this ideology, Rogers and other historians wrote in direct response to what I term the "white supremacist school" of American history that was dominating the academy at the turn of the 20th Century. Commenting on this particular school in his 1968 presidential address at the Organization of American Historians, Thomas Bailey stated, "False historical beliefs are so essential to our culture.... How different our national history would be if countless millions of our citizens had not been brought up to believe in the manifestly destined superiority ... of the white race."

At the same meeting the following year, Comer Vann Woodward argued that "American history, the white man's version, could profit from an infusion of soul." (2) Probably unknown to Bailey and Woodward, many years earlier, Joel A. Rogers and his research did infuse history with a pinch of soul and instill in countless Americans an anti-racist version of historical events. Still, Bailey's and Woodward's comments did reference the suffocating social existence of white oppression, both material and ideological, that led Rogers to develop a social consciousness of resistance and prompted him to interpret African American history in an anti-racist manner, and with an "African-centered" paradigm. Rogers' approach, in its essence, placed individuals of African ancestry and blood at the center of the dialectics of history. It was premised on the notion that whenever change took place in history, whenever momentous events occurred, and whenever history had its "Waterloo," Black people were there acting, reacting, and most importantly, creating the historical moments and events that future historians would term "turning points" in the rise of civilization.

Joel Augustus Rogers was, as were his contemporaries, a man of his times. Like all humans, Rogers was a product of his social existence. This reality led him to a social consciousness peculiar to the historically specific social relationships in which he, as a result of his social class and "racial category," had lived and struggled. White versus Black was the social relationship that produced a disparity in social existence and, therefore, social and political thinking within each racial category. Historiography, as a mold of social thinking, developed its own dialectics of historical interpretation within the social relationship of American capitalist political economy. (3) Slavery, peonage, sharecropping, and Jim Crow produced a historical mindset within an antagonistic polarity between White and Black America. The historically defined social relationship that Joel Augustus Rogers struggled within was characterized by Rayford Logan's term "The Nadir." (4) This lowest point in African American history was indelibly stamped by what Allen Trelease termed "White Terror." (5)

The racial and class relationship of "White over Black" was fundamental to the domination of the recently freed ex-slave population during the period of Reconstruction and its aftermath-and White Terror was the basis of this domination. …