J. A. Rogers, L. L. Zamenhof, and the Universal Races Congress of 1911

J[oel] A[ugustus] Rogers (1880 - 1966) was an eminent Black American autodidactic historian who spent decades marshaling evidence to dispel the myth of race and racial supremacy and to restore the contributions of the African diaspora to historical memory. I came across his work again while researching the history and impact of the First Universal Races Congress of 1911 (which was to be the last).

This year marks the centennial of that congress, and nobody seems to be noticing except for a Baha'i blogger, Bahram Nadimi:

Twentieth Century Renaissance and Race Unity

Nadimi even mentions W. E. B. Du Bois and  Zamenhof in the same sentence!

Otherwise, it seems no one has heard of the Universal Races Congress. I hope to rectify this situation.

Aside from consulting the Proceedings of the congress itself, I have been seeking out relatively contemporary secondary literature and have begun to look at reviews of the congress within its own time frame. I've learned quite a bit about the ideological variables that went into that conference both on the part of its "non-white" as well its European and Euro-American participants. I will comment more on this as well as the larger vision of my project another time.

So far I'm not finding any references to Zamenhof in the contemporary secondary literature. While I consider Zamenhof a relatively minor player in this scenario, I am finding that a comparison of his ideas to those of other contributors will yield some non-trivial insights. But there is also the secondary literature of the time. Of interest is one reference to Zamenhof I've found in Rogers' landmark 1917 novel From "Superman" to Man. (Note the anti-Nietzschean title.) The black protagonist Dixon carries on a running argument with a white supremacist. At some point Dixon invokes the Universal Races Congress and its consensus that all races are congenitally equal. He quotes Spiller, Finot, and Zamenhof. Zamenhof:

Give the Africans, without any mingling of rancour or oppression, a high and humane civilisation, and you will find that their mental level will not differ from ours. Abolish the whole of our civilisation, and our mind will sink to the level of that of an African cannibal. It is not a difference of mentality in the race, but a difference of instruction.
Now this is curious. The reference to African "cannibals" makes us wince today, but the larger argument is Zamenhof's refutation of any meaningful racial distinctions. Rogers is prepared for the next move. The racist senator seems willing to concede the point of innate capacity, but he goes on a hysterical tirade claiming that the Negro has contributed absolutely nothing to world civilization. Rogers' mouthpiece Dixon calmly refutes the popular superstition that Negro history begins with slavery, reaching back to antiquity to prove the opposite. This then, is the explicit rejoinder to the confirmed bigot and the implicit response to well-meaning Zamenhof's erroneous assumptions.

It is important to note also that while Zamenhof's assumptions about Africans grate on us today, Zamenhof also rejects essentialist assumptions held by his contemporaries, including many of the participating "non-white" intellectuals. This in my view is very much related to Zamenhof's demystification of the collective identity of European Jews—that slice of the world he knew best.

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