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Controversial Afrocentric Scholar Dies

Adam Bernstein

Ivan Van Sertima, a Guayana-born writer who died May 25 in New Jersey, created a stir for his 1977 book "They Came Before Columbus," which argued that blacks made a major contribution to civilization in the New World before Columbus sailed into the West Indies in the 15th century.

Dr. Van Sertima, who taught African studies at Rutgers University, was an early figure in Afrocentrism, an ethnic history movement that highlights historical achievement among blacks -- in part to boost minority students' self-esteem. Scholars of all races, including the esteemed Howard University classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr., likened Afrocentrism to "ethnic cheerleading." To criticize it was to make oneself susceptible to charges of racism.

Dr. Van Sertima's scholarship was viewed with great skepticism when his book came out. Glyn Daniel, a Cambridge scholar of archeology, called his work "ignorant rubbish" and attacked him personally as a "deluded" scholar.

Daniel said Dr. Van Sertima made too many assertions without proof, allegations later repeated by the Journal of Current Anthropology. In part, Daniel was scathing in Dr. Van Sertima's attempts to substantiate his thesis by linking resemblances between Egyptian pyramids and American step-pyramids. Daniel said there was "no shred of evidence" to support this and other beliefs set forth in Dr. Van Sertima's book.

Predictably, Dr. Van Sertima wrote of feeling slandered by the review. But his career flourished and he was a favorite of many young students hungry to uplift black culture.

Dr. Van Sertima told The Post in 1977: "Many people feel a certain kind of happiness when they read my book. A certian 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."

But what of his scholarship? Various obits describe him as a "giant," etc. Thoughts?

By Adam Bernstein  |  June 17, 2009; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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