Monday, June 1, 2009

Remembering Dr. Ivan van Sertima: 1935-2009

On May 31st, it was announced that the historian, linguist and anthropologist Dr. Ivan van Sertima passed away in his homeland of Guyana. For anyone remotely acquainted with African history, especially that deliriously exciting movement of historical Afrocentricity in the late 1980s and early 90s, Dr. van Sertima was a giant.

I remember when I first heard Dr. van Sertima speak. It was thrilling to hear someone with a familiar West Indian accent speaking forcefully and powerfully on African history. Dr. van Sertima made no apologies nor did he indulge in nuanced watered-down African history. His position was clear--Africa had a rich history spanning from antiquity to the early precolonial period, that had been purposefully distorted, misrepresented and white-washed by modern Eurocentric historians. He attributed his profound interest in African history to his life under colonial rule, during which time he learned more about the history of the British Empire than his own homeland. Like many others he found himself wondering where exactly people like him--people who looked like him--fit onto the historical map. Not satisfied with an Africa described and depicted as a "Dark Continent," and breaking with mentors who attempted to steer him elsewhere, Dr. van Sertima took it upon himself to traverse an academic path that would help uncover Africa's often ignored past. An adherent of the theories of the Senegalese historian, scientist and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop, the Guyanese scholar earned his doctorate and began teaching at Rutgers University in 1972.

As editor of the Journal of African Civilization, in the 1980s thru early 1990s he helped provide a voice for numerous black scholars--both inside and outside academia--who attempted to correct what they saw as a concerted attempt to devalue and erase pre-colonial African history. From dynastic Egypt to medieval Islamic Spain to modern black scientists, Dr. van Sertima and his colleagues followed the trail of black history wherever it led, and did not shy away from oft-times heated debates with mainstream academic counterparts. They were however not working with the funding, and in some cases the training, the academic world provided. In their writings you sometimes see the attempt of an artist trying to recreate a fine portrait from broken fragments--bits of linguistics here, some archaeology there, history, art, whatever helped make the final picture work. Some of these works were genius, such as the deconstruction of racial categories that had permeated academia for well over a century. Others were admittedly far-fetched, entertaining the fringes of historicity. But much of it, even when falling short of the mark or deserving criticism, opened up avenues of discussion that had previously been closed--expanding the boundaries of black historical study.

Dr. van Sertima's most famous work would be the 1977 book They Came Before Columbus, in which he put forth the hypothesis that African seafarers reached the Americas before Columbus: during the ancient period congruous with the Olmec period (1400BCE to 400BCE) and other meetings during the late medieval era of the Aztec Empire. Dr. van Sertima marshalled an array of evidence: from agricultural sea crossings and favorable Atlantic ocean currents, to Mesoamerican writings and religious symbology. Most famously, he looked to the famed several ton Olmec heads which--with their oft-times thick lips and high cheekbones--many previous European archaeologists had asserted must have been of African origin. They Came Before Columbus became a bestseller, and was met with acclaim in the popular press, especially those looking to unseat Eurocentric hegemony. On July 7, 1987 Dr. van Sertima even appeared before a United States Congressional committee to give testimony that challenged the conventional wisdom that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.

In academic circles however, They Came Before Columbus was ignored or ridiculed. Some anthropologists and historians openly called it "rubbish." Mesoamerican researchers charged it ignored and omitted facts. I ndigenous activists asserted that theories of African seafarers arriving to "enlighten" native peoples robbed them of their own history. And, most stinging to someone like Dr. van Sertima, his critics claimed he sought to replace Eurocentric hegemony with an African-centered model. Some outright called him a racist. Dr. van Sertima refuted these charges, firing off numerous rebuttals, often meeting the "racist" charge by pointing out that he considered himself a person of multi-racial heritage--a product of African and indigenous peoples who shared similar fates in the Atlantic world. He denied he was asserting Mesoamerican culture fell out of what he called some "Egypto-Nubian heaven" and dissuaded other Afrocentric scholars from drawing such conclusions from his work. But he was resolute in his theories, and would not submit to what he saw as more of the Eurocentric drubbing he had endured throughout his life and academic career.

I first read They Came Before Columbus in the early 1990s, and was enthralled by its premise. A person searching like so many others for when and where people who resembled me entered the historical stage, I was a convert. And any theory that knocked Christopher Columbus--that symbol of slavery, genocide and the terror of modernity--from his lofty perch was like therapy for a lifetime of mental educational abuse. But the one thing Dr. van Sertima always promoted was honesty in scholarship--and I often admired that he chided those who took on the mantle "Afrocentric" only to put forth exaggerated or absurd theories of psychic ability or so-called faces on Mars. In Dr. van Sertima's mind, such things hurt the cause of African history which already had so much to go up against. And even in the books he edited, he warned contributors to be rigorous in their scholarship and called them out when he found them wanting. As he was often fond of saying, African history is rich enough; there's no need to make things up.

So it was with this type of advice in mind that by the late 1990s I began to question some of the key premises put forth in They Came Before Columbus. Ironically it would be some of the very ideas put forth by Dr. van Sertima, especially his ceaseless deconstruction of scientific racializations like the "Hamitic hypothesis" (which turns numerous East and Northeastern Africans into "dark whites"), that led me to question the evidence he had marshaled for African seafarers visiting the Pre-Columbian Americas. Olmec heads no longer looked "African" to my eyes, as much as they merely resembled the variety of phenotypes that define even modern Central Americans. And the cultural basis for pyramids, not to mention their architectural designs, no long seemed to have definitive similarities. If Africans had reached the Americas before Columbus, I was no longer comfortable with saying that Dr. van Sertima's theories provided the evidence. And on a few online message boards and with friends and colleagues, I said so openly.

But I was always respectful. After all, far more improbable assertions had been made previously by those still respected in varied genres. The progenitors of disciplines like Egyptology and Anthropology were often eccentric, bizarre in their theories and at times outright racist. Yet they laid the foundations for their respective fields, and we are expected today to acknowledge their accomplishments despite their other failings. Dr. van Sertima may have jumped wrong on They Came Before Columbus, but it didn't invalidate numerous other contributions he gave to African history. Nor has Christopher Columbus's lofty perch gone unchallenged by others.

Why in the face of competing evidence did he remain steadfast in his theories, I can't say. Maybe he was too arrogant to back down, and unable to take his own advice. Perhaps he was reacting to the often condescending and thinly veiled race-baiting approach his (usually) white critics took. Or maybe he just honestly believed that he was correct. In a speech he once gave, Dr. van Sertima spoke of his "skills" with his hands as a youth in Guyana, during which time he gained local recognition for his ability and willingness to take on any challenger. Even as a scholar, it seems that fighting spirit didn't leave him.

So it was a bit surprising when Dr. van Sertima, who usually forcefully replied to his critics, remained oddly silent when a 1997 Journal of Current Anthropology article criticized (in rich detail) They Came Before Columbus. By then the Journal of African Civilization was in decline or out of print. Afrocentric scholarship had been beaten and hounded from much of academia, labeled a threat so great one Classicist claimed "barbarians were at the gate." And when I heard mention of Dr. Van Sertima again a few years later, I was told shocking news---that he was suffering from Alzheimer's. That a mind so astute would end up with such a fate seemed surreal. Dr. van Sertima seemed to disappear from public view, until this past weekend when a friend rung me about his death in Guyana.

In the end, whatever one thinks of the theories he put forth and supported, Dr. Ivan van Sertima served as a beacon in a field where black and African peoples had been relegated to invisibility or mere spectators. As one historian put it, his greatest crime wasn't that whether he was correct or not--it was that he dared to put forth the "plausibility" of African accomplishment and African genius that rivaled and directly challenged some of the most cherished precepts of Eurocentricity. In this regard Dr. van Sertima allowed African histories to escape the meager parameters they had been assigned, taking us on treks from early Europe to medieval Asia. He allowed us to think of ourselves as valuable participants in both the past and modern world, and helped us believe we could shape the future. His courage helped give us self-worth, and perhaps in the end that was his most valuable contribution.

by Dr. Ivan van Sertima:

Malegapuru William Makgoba, ed., African Renaissance, Mafube and Tafelberg, Sandton and Cape Town, 1999

Runoko Rashidi and Ivan van Sertima, ed., African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995 (1985)

Ivan van Sertima, ed., African Presence in early Europe, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1985

____ Black Women in Antiquity, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____ Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1983

____ Early America Revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998

____ Egypt: Child of Africa New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994

____ Egypt Revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1989

____ The Golden Age of the Moor, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992

____ Great African Thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1986

____ Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____ They Came Before Columbus, New York: Random House, 1976

____ Early America revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____Van Sertima before Congress: the Columbus myth United States. Congress. House. Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Subcommittee on Census and Population.; Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Highland Park, NJ : Audio Division, Journal of African Civilizations, 1988.


Dannie said...

What a truly thorough reflection of van Sertima's career. I was not familiar with his work, but I will surely check out his writings now.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful but flawed tribute to Dr. Ivan Van Sertima. I say "flawed" because it seems to repeat some of the problematic criticism on Dr. Van Sertima's wikipedia page. Wikipedia "gatekeepers" have allowed the N.Y. Times' "rubbish" statement from Glyn Daniels (who was not an authority on Mexican archeology) while deleting a response to Daniels from Dr. Clarence Weiant, archeologist at the National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institute, which was, supportive of Dr. Van Sertima that the N.Y. Times printed. This tribute also repeats the false wikipedia statement that Dr. Van Sertima did not respond to criticism in Current Anthropology. Wikipedia editors also deleted material showing that, in fact, Dr. Van Sertima made a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal on the African Within website. Lastly, the blogger says he's not convinced that the massive Olmec heads are negroid-looking. Let me just say that those features look more negroid than most negroes I've ever seen. If they look like the "indigenous" people of that region, maybe it's because those people have black ancestry (and not just from thousands of years ago).

Jason said...

@ Anonymous:

I would love to read Van Sertima's rebuttal article in Current Anthropology, if you could cite that reference, I'd appreciate it...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Jason, I've just now noticed your question related to my earlier post. Dr. Van Sertima responded to the Current Anthropology criticisms point-by-point in a 1998 publication: EARLY AMERICA REVISITED, pages 135-141. Dr. Van Sertima also explains in EARLY AMERICA REVISITED why he didn't want his response printed in Current Anthropology. Just consider one of the journal's claims: "If, perchance, some Africans had landed in the New World, rather than being regarded as gods they would probably have been sacrificed and eaten." (citing the example of a few Spanish explorers who the indigenous people sacrificed and ate). The problem with this logic is that what happened to these unfortunate explorers was an anomaly. Most Spaniards mixed and interbred freely with the indigenous Mesoamericans. The evidence is in Colonial Mexico's census records and Casta paintings from that era. Likewise, Africans who were enslaved and brought to colonial Mexico also interbred with the indigenous people to the point where blacks have been practically absorbed into Mexico's gene pool (which explains the negroid features of contemporary Mexicans). Again, the evidence is in colonial Mexico's census rolls and Casta paintings. This cannibalism argument is the kind of ridiculous "scholarship" in Current Anthropology that Dr. Van Sertima had to contend with.

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