Ivan Van Sertima the Guyanese-born historian, who gained global renown with his scholarship showing African presence in the Americas before Columbus, has died.
Van Sertima’s most famous work was “They Came Before Columbus,” (Random House, 1976) which showed African influences in Central and South America before the arrival of Europeans.
Thereafter, he engaged in battle with conservative scholars who rejected his teachings. He was a professor at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
He died peacefully on May 25, memorial day.
Dr. Ivan Van Sertima was born January 26, 1935, in Kitty Village, Guyana. He was one of the most brilliant scholars and historians to hail from there; he belonged on the same podium as the late Guyanese scholar and union organizer, Dr. Walter Rodney; and American giants such as Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Martin Bernal. Van Sertima was also a linguist and anthropologist.
Van Sertima’s father, Frank Obermuller, was a trade union leader. Van Sertima initially focused on writing poetry after his primary and secondary education.
He later attended the renowned School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London where in 1969, he graduated with honors. He was fluent in Kiswahili and Hungarian languages.
Van Sertima became a U.K.-based journalist for many years, focusing on Africa and the Caribbean. He found time to compile a dictionary of Kiswahili legal terms while doing field work in Africa.
Van Sertima moved to the United States in 1970. He later completed his master’s degree at Rutgers in 1977. He became Associate Professor of African Studies in the Department of Africana Studies.
As with the legendary Cheik Anta Diop, the seminal Senegalese scholar, Van Sertima also showed that Ancient Egyptians were Black. He gained global fame with his 1976 book “They Came Before Columbus,” which eventually became a bestseller.
He showed prehistoric African influences in Central and South America. At a 1998 conference in South Africa on the theme of the African Renaissance, Van Sertima presented an article, The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview.
He showed early African advances in engineering, agriculture, navigation, medicine, writing, metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, and architecture. He showed that higher learning was the preserve of elites rendering them vulnerable to destruction.
He had intellectual battles with conservative scholars who criticized and challenged his Afro-pre-Columbus teachings. Van Sertima even appeared before a United States Congressional committee to challenge crediting Christopher Columbus with the “discovery” of America.
His critics contend that by asserting African origins for prehistoric Olmec culture in present-day Mexico, Van Sertima ignored the work of Central American scholars. Moreover, his critics claimed no evidence emerged of prehistoric African influence in controlled archeological excavations and they contended that while Olmec stone heads superficially appear to be African they were not similar to Nubian populations Van Sertima claimed as originators.
Notwithstanding a hostile review in The New York Times in 1977 by the U.K. scholar Glyn Daniel who claimed the work was “rubbish” and that booksellers wondered if it should have been placed “in folklore and mythology.”
Van Sertima countered that many scholars were narrow-minded because in mainstream of academia certain ideas had “become the given, taken for granted in society."
The late Dr. John Henrik Clarke was more explicit and said Whites scholars wanted to control global knowledge and images. "They have to admit that the foundations of what you call Western civilization was laid by non-Europeans,” the late Dr. Clarke once told a New York Times reporter. “When they say whites brought forth world civilization they are a bunch of fakers and liars.”
Herb Boyd, the noted historian and journalist, who attended Van Sertima's funeral services today at the Riverside Church in Harlem recalled Van Sertima as an "innovative and creative scholar" who always gave credit to historians and scientists who came before him. "His chief contribution to history and his main legacy to me is his hypothesis that Africans were in the New World before Europeans," Boyd said, adding that "What he did in his work was almost give irrefutable evidence...."
Moreover, Boyd said, "He brought the whole Diaspora home for us."