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Black history speaker challenges myths
about early American history
February 22, 1999
Africans came to America long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, according to a professor of African studies at Rutgers University, and the evidence goes back to Columbus himself.
"I'm not the first person to suggest there were Africans in America before Columbus. Christopher Columbus is the first person to say that," said Ivan Van Sertima during a lecture held in celebration of Black History Month in the Student Union Ballroom on Tuesday. The findings of his extensive research on the topic are detailed in his latest book Early America Revisited.
Van Sertima, who is also a visiting professor at Princeton University, said that Columbus wrote that the native Americans he had encountered spoke of "black-skinned people" who traded in gold-tipped spears, and there are numerous eyewitness accounts by other European explorers that also indicate the existence of Africans in ancient America.
Van Sertima said that, despite the weight of scientific evidence, critics still maintain that if there were indeed Africans in America before Columbus, "they must have been brought there by someone else," a belief he termed racist and irrational.
In 1987, Van Sertima appeared before Congress to challenge the myth that Columbus discovered America. Since then, the word "discovery" has been deleted from official documents.
Van Sertima gave evidence from a wide range of sources to support his thesis that there was contact between Africa and America before Columbus. The gold-tipped spears that Columbus found in the Caribbean and sent back to Spain for analysis, for example, were identical with those made on Africa's Guinea Coast, he said.
He also gave linguistic and botanical evidence of pre-Columbian African presence in South America and said there is oceanographic evidence of currents that acted as "marine conveyor belts" between the two continents. Navigational proof that Africans had ancient boats with the capacity to cross the Atlantic, and a map which gives the outline of Brazil with the exact distance from the African continent, also suggest transatlantic movement, he said.
The lecture was accompanied by a slide presentation, including paintings and sculptures in pre-Columbian Mexico that suggest linkages between America and Egypt when Egypt was predominantly African.
Born in Guyana, South America, and educated at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Van Sertima recalled his disillusionment with much of his education because Africans were studied as "primitives." He said he encountered such pervasive racism that at one point he tried to commit suicide.
As literary critic, linguist and anthropologist, Van Sertima has made significant contributions to re-conceptualizing African history. His book They Came Before Columbus, published in 1977, was awarded the Clarence L. Holte Prize for "excellence in literature and the humanities relating to the cultural heritage of Africa and the African diaspora."
He said that although the United States is "the most powerful country on earth," racism could undermine its potential to develop a "vision of the world that is all-inclusive."
Van Sertima said what he is interested in is neither "Afro-centric" nor "Euro-centric" but "truth-centric" scholarship.
The lecture was sponsored by the Institute for African American Studies and the African American Cultural Center.