Dr. Ivan Van Sertima Remembered
By Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D.
Anthropologist, linguist, educator and author with global influence.
We just lost one of the most significant Afrikan world scholars to walk this earth. He leaped on the scene in the late 1970s, early 1980s with the publishing of his major pioneering work, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence In Ancient America. It demonstrated that Afrikans were sailing and settling in the Americas during the period 1200 BC–600 BC. This virtually eliminated any story of Columbus discovering America. The national uproar the book caused reached the highest levels. Scholars were attacking him from every corner. The book was so controversial; he was invited before a congressional committee to present his findings.
“Let me mention and clarify my presentation before congress, and how it relates to this work. I appeared on July 7th, 1987, before a Congressional Committee that was overseeing the work of the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Commission. I was called upon to show due cause why they should not refer to Columbus’ accidental stumble into the Caribbean as a discovery. I pointed to the fact that Columbus was the first to suggest there were Afrikans in the Americas before him. The Afrikan voyage is significant.
“I also pointed to the fact that the International Congress of Americanists, meeting in Barcelona as early as 1964, had ruled ‘there cannot now be any doubt that there were Old World visitors to the New World before 1492.’” (Interview with author.) This caused congress to change the terminology of Columbus’ adventure from “discovery” to “voyages.”
After his book was published, changing the course of American history and how it was taught, Van Sertima realized he would not be published again. Knowing there was so much more information to be researched and published on the Afrikan presence in the world, he created what are now considered the most important journals on Afrikan world history and culture.
“I got involved in The Journal of African Civilizations, which has produced more than a dozen volumes, nine of which are titled. I have stretched tentacles into Europe, into Afrika, into the Caribbean, all across America, to draw from the very best of our scholars. We, and I really mean we, have developed a kind of school. It has made a tremendous difference.
“There’s the book Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, which is now accepted by nearly a hundred schools and universities. There is African Presence in Early Europe; African Presence in Early Asia; African Presence in Early America; Great Black Leaders, Ancient and Modern; Black Women in Antiquity; Great African Thinkers; Nile Valley Civilizations; Egypt Revisited; and Golden Age of the Moor.” (Interview with author.)
Van Sertima was one of the few scholars who dared to address our relationships, related to history. “We must realize that scholarship is not a separate entity from our relationships. You see, one of the things that leads to extremely difficult relationships, and this is not something that is going to vanish overnight, is self-contempt. This is very deep among Afrikan-American and Afrikan Caribbean people. Our historylessness (and by that I mean our assumption that we have no significant history), our lack of belief in ourselves, our lack of belief in having something of value, something substantial of value to support us leads to all sorts of anxieties, angers, insecurities that are bound to affect relationships.
“No relationship, therefore, in a highly troubled psyche, a shattered psyche, no relationship with people who nurse or nurture troubled or shattered psyches can be easy relationships. That is why it is so critical to use history to rebuild, to bring a healthier wholeness to that psyche. So even though, directly, no one could come and tell you, ‘Well look, if you study this history you are going to have a better relationship.’ The study of history can give you a sense of wholeness. Can give you a different quality of mental health. It will almost inevitably lead to healthier relationships.” (Interview with author.)
Dr. Ivan Van Sertima will live throughout the ages. He left us a plethora of work that will be significant during any period. He was one of the most prolific scholars we had in the modern era. His scholastic impact on American history and the Afrikan world will be studied as long as there are educational institutions of higher learning. On top of all of that, he was a beautiful human being.