Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, 74, Dies; Academic and Author of “They Came Before Columbus”
(This is a video of a lecture of Dr. Van Sertima in Britain. More can be found at You Tube and at Google Videos.)
It was revealed yesterday that Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, the Afrocentric historian who contended that Africans had discovered the Americas long before Christopher Columbus, has died. His passing was found in a press release from the Guyana Cultural Association New York Inc. /Guyana Folk Festival Committee, which was sending its condolences to his family.
Van Sertima, who is being buried today from the Riverside Church in Harlem, was also known as a poet, critic, linguist, journalist and anthropologist. He was fluent in Swahili as well as in Hungarian. Born in Kitty, British Guyana, he received his undergraduate degree in African languages and literature with honors from the University of London. Later, Van Sertima migrated to the United States in 1969 to complete his graduate studies at Rutgers University, where he began his almost 30-year-long connection with that institution. He rose to become associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers.
Like many Afrocentric or alternative scholars, Van Sertima was criticized for faulty research in his landmark book, They Came Before Columbus, which was published in 1976 and is still in print. He contended that Africans held trading and cultural contacts in Central and South America, that the ancient Egyptians were of African descent, and that Africans’ scientific achievements–the preserve of the elite class–also rendered them vulnerable to European appropriation. Despite his controversial views, he was invited to state them, add his voice to those challenging the oft-repeated claim that Columbus discovered America before Congress in 1987.
Despite repeated refutation of his claims, especially by Glyn Daniel, writing in the New York Times; Dean Snow in American Heritage; and by Latinos like Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano (with Warren Barbour), writing in the Journal of Current Anthropology that Van Sertima had ignored Latino scholarship, Van Sertima would not recant or give ground. I have a hardback copy of Van Sertima’s book; if anything, it puts paid the idea that we were all separate in our own little worlds and continents until Columbus arrived. I also know that a lot of documentary evidence during the Conquest and the exploration period was destroyed to support a certain view. I think that there was contact, even trade, but not to the extent Van Sertima suggests. I don’t think that he ranks with a genuine fantasist like Erich Von Daniken as some of these critics allege.
Van Sertima was also the author of several other books, including Black Women in Antiquity, Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Early America Revisited, Egypt Revisited, and The Golden Age of the Moor. His testimony before Congress is also available from the Journal of African Civilizations.
In later years, Van Sertima suffered from Alzheimer’s. He is survived by his wife, Maria Nagy, and a son.