Ivan Van Sertima’s books great reading for Black History Month

MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

We have come to reclaim the house of history. We are dedicated to the revision of the role of the African in the world’s great civilizations, the contribution of Africa to the achievement of man in the arts and sciences. We shall emphasize what Africa has given to the world, not what it has lost.

Ivan Van Sertima, author of They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, published in 1977.

Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima was born on January 26, 1935 in Kitty, Georgetown, Guyana. At the time of Van Sertima’s birth, Kitty was a village near the capital city of Georgetown, British Guiana, which was then a colony possessed by the British Empire.

Surprisingly, British Guiana was the only possession of the British on the entire South American continent.

Van Sertima, who is considered one of the architects of the modern Africentric education movement, received his primary and secondary education in Guyana. After completing his secondary education, he worked as a press and broadcasting officer in the Government Information Services in Georgetown from 1956 to 1959. He moved to Britain in 1959 and lived there until 1970 during which time he worked for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and studied towards a degree in African languages and literature at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. He received a B.A. Honours degree, in 1969.

He also compiled a dictionary of legal terms in Kiswahili based on field work he did in Tanzania in 1967 and wrote a series of essays on Caribbean literature, Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays, which was published in 1968.

Van Sertima immigrated to the United States in 1970, where he entered Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey as a graduate student and began his more than 30-year teaching career when he was hired as an instructor in Rutgers new African Studies department. He completed his M.A. degree in 1977 and was hired as Associate Professor of African Studies in the Department of Africana Studies in 1979.

In 1977, Van Sertima published his ground breaking study of the African presence in the New World before Columbus and other Europeans.

In publishing They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, he acknowledged the support he received from another Guyanese scholar, Jan Carew (born September 24, 1920 at Agricola, East Bank Demerara.). Carew, the author of more than 30 books including The Rape of Paradise: Columbus and the Birth of Racism in the Americas, was published in 1994.

Carew introduced Van Sertima to a 1920 trilogy, Africa and the discovery of America, by Leo Wiener which piqued his interest in learning more about the history of Africans in the New World and led to his research and the writing of They Came Before Columbus.

Van Sertima used his skills and training as anthropologist, historian and linguist in researching and writing this seminal work, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tu2EoSA3TXY.

His work has inspired African scholars internationally and is an invaluable contribution to African-centred curricula. Because of people like Van Sertima, African-centred education is a viable option today.

Van Sertima contributed to the revolutionizing of academia from a Eurocentric point of view to not just including Africa and Africans but correcting misinformation. His book included the often ignored African history before any European set foot on the continent. He shared with all who read his book that Africa had a rich history which had been deliberately distorted, misrepresented and white-washed by European historians.

The fact that African seafarers reached the Americas centuries before Columbus, during the ancient period congruent with the Olmec civilization period (1500BCE to 400BCE) and other meetings during the late medieval era of the Aztec Empire, had not been widely known before Van Sertima’s book was published. He gathered evidence, from pictures of the now famous Olmec heads, religious symbols, agricultural sea crossings and favourable Atlantic Ocean currents to Mesoamerican writings, to prove his findings.

Although scholars (mostly European archaeologists) before him had made the connection between the Olmec heads and their similarity to Africans, Van Sertima went further in gathering other evidence (including linguistic) to prove that Africans had lived in the Americas long before Columbus lost his way and stumbled upon this New World.

He writes about an encounter between Columbus and the native people he found on Espanola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1496.

The Indians gave proof that they were trading with Black people.

“The Indians of this Espanola said there had come to Espanola a black people who have the top of their spears made of a metal which they called “gua-nin,” of which he [Columbus] had sent samples to the Sovereigns to have them assayed, when it was found that of 32 parts, 18 were of gold, 6 of silver and 8 of copper.”

According to Van Sertima, the word “guanin” could be traced to several “Mande languages of West Africa” including Mandingo, Kabunga, Toronka, Kankanka, Bambara, Mande and Vei.

In 1979, Van Sertima founded The Journal of African Civilizations, which he described thus: “The Journal of African Civilizations, founded in 1979, has gained a reputation for excellence and uniqueness among historical and anthropological journals. It is recognized as a valuable information source for both the layman and student. It has created a different historical perspective within which to view the ancestor of the African-American and the achievement and potential of black people the world over. It is the only historical journal in the English-speaking world which focuses on the heartland rather than on the periphery of African civilizations.”

On July 7, 1987, Van Sertima appeared before a United States Congressional committee to give testimony that challenged the conventional wisdom that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. In 1998, he published Early America Revisited, proving with his meticulous research and attention to detail, again (adding to his earlier work), that Africans lived in the Americas and influenced the culture of this part of the world before any Europeans.

Van Sertima, who transitioned on May 25, 2009, was the author of 15 books including Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, 1983; African Presence in early Europe, 1985; Black Women in Antiquity, 1988; Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern, 1988; Egypt Revisited, 1989; The Golden Age of the Moor, 1992 and Egypt: Child of Africa, 1994.

During African History Month (February) do more than attend entertainment events. Read and discuss the work of Van Sertima and other historians who have rescued our history from the margins of Eurocentric history books.


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