Prof. Ivan Van Sertima, the Guyanese historian whose theories of an African presence in the Americas before Columbus’ arrival drew its share of controversy, died on May 25 in New Jersey, where worked for more than thirty years as associate professor of history in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers University. He was 74 and is believed to have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Van Sertima was born in Kitty Village, Guyana, on 26 January 1935 and completed undergraduate studies in African languages and literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London in 1969, graduating with honors. He worked for several years in Great Britain as a journalist, doing weekly broadcasts to the Caribbean and Africa, before migrating to the United States, where he entered Rutgers University for graduate work, and where he began his teaching career in 1972.
In 1976, van Sertima published his controversial They Came before Columbus, a popular bestseller that claimed prehistoric African influences on the new world but which has been widely attacked by academics. In a New York Times 1977 review of Van Sertima works, British scholar Glyn Daniel called Van Sertima’s work “ignorant rubbish”, concluding that the writings of Van Sertima“give us badly argued theories based on fantasies.” The book has nonetheless gone through more than twenty printings. It was published in French in 1981, and in the same year was awarded the Clarence L. Holt Prize, a prize awarded every two years “for a work of excellence in literature and the humanities relating to the cultural heritage of Africa and the African diaspora.” On July 7, 1987 Van Sertima appeared before a United States Congressional committee to challenge giving credit for the discovery of America to Christopher Columbus.
Herb Boyd, the noted historian and journalist, who attended Van Sertima’s funeral services 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.”