Van Sertima, Ivan 1935–
Ivan van Sertima 1935–
A mild-mannered scholar of British-Caribbean background, Ivan van Settima unleashed a revolution in the popular historical imagination with his 1977 book They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. In that book, van Sertima argued that explorers from the great cultures of ancient Egypt had traveled to the Western Hemisphere and deeply influenced pre-Columbian cultures there, in contrast with other possible early visitors such as the Vikings, who left few cultural traces of their presence. Along with van Sertima’s later work exploring other facets of African influence in ancient cultures, the book stands at the center of efforts to develop African-centered models of primary and secondary education. However, the validity of van Sertima’s research has often been questioned by scholars from the mainstream of academic anthropology.
Ivan Gladstone van Sertima was born in Kitty Village in Guyana, a small country on South America’s Caribbean coast, on January 26, 1935. Guyana was then a colony of Great Britain, and van Sertima retained British citizenship even after embarking on his scholarly career in the United States. Van Sertima’s father, Frank Obermuller, was a trade union leaden Van Sertima completed primary and secondary schooling in Guyana. In 1956, he landed a job as a broadcaster and writer with the government information service in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown. The following year, he published a book of poetry entitled River and the Wall.
River and the Wall was published in Guyana, but the book attracted attention in England as well, and van Sertima moved there in November of 1959. He began work on a degree in African languages and literature at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. Along the way, he learned to speak Swahili and Hungarian fluently.
During the 1960s, however, van Sertima’s creative efforts were widely diffused through many different endeavors. He did broadcasts about literature for the BBC, wrote poetry, worked on a novel called Blackhouse that was filmed under the title of The Black Prince, compiled a dictionary of legal terms in Swahili, and embarked upon his career as a scholar with a series of essays on Caribbean literature. He received his B.A. degree, with honors, in 1969 from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
Following graduation from college, van Sertima briefly resumed his broadcasting career. However, in 1970, he took time off to visit the United States for the first time. While there, he made two crucial intellectual discoveries. The first was a monumental historical work of the 1920s, Leo Wiener’s Africa and the Discovery of America. The book was an example of the “diffusionist” school of thinking which held that cultural traits in general, and in this case African traits in particular, tended to migrate around the globe rather than springing up separately and spontaneously in different cultures.
At a Glance…
Born January 26, 1935, in Kitty Village, British Guyana; married Maria Nagy, October 24, 1964; children: Lawrence Josef. Education: London School of Oriental and African Studies, London, England, B.A. with honors, 1969; Rutgers University, M.A, 1977.
Career Scholar, critic, educator, and poet, Press and broadcasting officer, Government Information Office, Georgetown, Guyana, 1956–59; freelance broadcaster and writer, London, England, 1959–69; broadcaster, Central Office of Information, London, 1969–70; instructor, Rutgers University, 1970–72; assistant professor, Rutgers, 1972–79; wrote best-selling book. They Came Before Columbus, 1977; associate professor of African studies, 1979–; numerous other writings; has edited many books on African civilizations and their influence.
Awards: Nominator, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1976–80; Clarence L. Holte Prize, Twenty-First Century Foundation, 1981.
Addresses: Office —Department of African Studies, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08094.
The second was the widely reported discovery of a group of large heads of African appearance, created by the Olmec culture of Central America in, it was then thought, the eighth or seventh century B.C.
Enrolling in a master’s program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, van Sertima was hired there as an instructor in 1970 in the school’s new African Studies department. He has continued to teach there ever since, winning promotions to assistant professor in 1972 and associate professor in 1979, the latter coming after he received his M.A. degree. The bulk of van Sertima’s time in the 1970s, however, was occupied with the writing of They Came Before Columbus, a massive work whose evidence for the pre-Columbian African discovery of the New World encompassed many historical subjects and fields of knowledge.
Van Sertima’s central argument was that the Nubian rulers of ancient Egypt organized expeditions for the gathering of natural resources. One of these expeditions crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the Caribbean coast. The Olmecs, predecessors to the Maya and the other great cultures of Central America, created their large ceremonial heads in depiction and in honor of these African invaders. Van Sertima supported his thesis with other claims of African influence on New World cultures, involving the presence of certain cultivated crops, including cotton, and of Egyptian practices such as pyramid-building and mummification of the dead.
They Came Before Columbus, which was published in 1977 on the heels of Alex Haley’s massive best-seller Roots, was hugely successful, not only among African American readers, but with the American public in general. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it a featured selection, and van Sertima became a widely sought-after lecturer. Van Sertima, quoted in the volume Caribbean Writers, pointed to some of the reasons for the book’s resonance: “Many people feel a certain kind of happiness when they read my book. A certain kind of shadow lifts. The psyche of blacks is raised. No man who believes his history began with slavery can be a healthy man. If you lift that shadow, you help repair that damage.” Van Sertima’s work began to be featured in university African Studies courses, as well as African-centered curricula that were beginning to emerge in urban elementary and high schools.
However, the academic community has not been kind to van Sertima’s work. The criticism began with a New York Times review of They Came Before Columbus, in which British scholar Glyn Daniel referred to the book as “ignorant rubbish.” Van Sertima, according to Caribbean Writers, rejoined that Daniel was “a man impervious to original thought.” A lengthy review of van Sertima’s claims in a 1997 issue of the journal, Current Anthropology, took issue with almost all of them. The review asserted that the features of the Olmec heads were only superficially African, and pointed out that the period of Egyptian pyramid-building did not coincide with the one during which van Sertima’s voyages were alleged to have taken place. It also faulted van Sertima, who is not an anthropologist or archaeologist, for ignoring the work of Central American researchers, and noted that no actual artifacts of African presence have been found in the New World. The authors of this critique also turned van Sertima’s cultural outlook on its head, accusing him of disparaging the achievements of Native American cultures.
Van Sertima has defended his claims, but declined to respond to the 1997 article. However, he has compiled an impressive record of publications since They Came Before Columbus, editing works that investigated ancient Egyptian culture generally and focusing on its effects on the rest of the ancient world. Among these works are The African Presence in Early Europe (1985) and The Golden Age of the Moor (1991). Van Sertima is the founder of the Journal of African Civilizations, a monograph series on African subjects, and served as a nominator for the Nobel Prize committee during the late 1970s. He is also a recipient of the Clarence L. Holte Prize of the Twenty-First Century Foundation.
River and the Wall, 1958.
Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays, 1968.
Swahili Dictionary of Legal Terms, 1968.
They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, 1977.
Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, 1983 (editor).
Black Women in Antiquity, 1984 (editor).
Egypt Revisited, 1985 (editor).
The African Presence in Early Europe, 1985 (editor).
The African Presence in Early Asia, 1985 (editor, with Runoko Rashidi).
Great African Thinkers, Volume I: Cheiki Anta Diop, 1986 (editor).
Great Black Leaders, Ancient and Modern, 1988 (editor).
The Golden Age of the Moor, 1991 (editor).
Egypt: Child of Africa, 1994 (editor).
Journal of African Civilizations, ongoing (editor).
Contemporary Authors, volume 104, Gale, 1982; New Revision Series, volume 42, Gale, 1994.
Herdeck, Donald E., Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Critical Encyclopedia, Three Continents Press, 1979.
Murphy, Rosalie, ed., Contemporary Poets, first ed., St. James, 1970.
The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature, Gale, 1996.
Current Anthropology, June 1997, p. 419.
New York Times, March 13, 1977.
—James M. Manheim
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