In another tall tale, we were, and many school children still are, taught that Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer sponsored by the Spanish crown, discovered America (what eventually became the United States and Canada). More accurate history for the last 40 years, however, has made it abundantly clear that, in fact, Columbus did not do that. During his four acknowledged voyages to what became known as the New World (actually, he came in search of the Northwest passage to Asia to give Spain a commercial advantage over its rivals), he did land in South and Central America, in the Caribbean, and he did first see and report on the Gulf of Mexico for Europe.
Our holiday honoring him (Oct. 12) for discovering America is a hoax, however. Not only had the Vikings arrived in Canada almost 1,000 years before Columbus reached this part of the world, according to Professor Ivan Van Sertima, West African and possibly Egyptian sailors had arrived in these same places hundreds of years before Columbus. But we have no holiday for them.
Professor Van Sertima’s book, “They Came Before Columbus,” was first published 40 years ago and will be celebrated in Los Angeles for most of October, starting at Eso Won bookstore this week. In that book, many of us for the first time saw pictures of the colossal stone heads from the Olmec civilization, which is considered the mother culture of South and Central America, fundamentally giving rise to the later Aztec, Toltec and Mayan civilizations. At last count, at least 19 of these 40-50 ton, 11-foot heads of fleshy-lipped, broad-nosed African soldier kings have been unearthed since Professor Van Sertima’s research brought attention to them. His work was a monumental step forward in the cultural wars that had previously reduced the history of the Black presence in the Western hemisphere to indentured servitude and chattel slavery.
Professor Van Sertima received withering criticism from scholars hell-bent on maintaining the Eurocentric focus of history and cultural evolution in this hemisphere, but he also got some from several Latino and Native American scholars who saw his work as a challenge to their own ethnic narratives (‘You are trying to take our history from us!’). His work has withstood all assaults, however, and remains a classic of scientific and historical research.
Besides providing strong, compelling evidence of African ships arriving in this geographic arena, his book certainly killed the myth of Columbus’ discovery of America for many, many African-centered scholars, and it provided the basis for an alternate, well-grounded explanation of how we all got here. Pre-Columbian African sailors captaining their own ships in exploration and trade—Relish that concept for our youth.
Professor Van Sertima and his magnum opus deserve our very strong thanks for the eye-opening they provided, and we need to give his memory a hearty Hotep!
I appreciate the day off work, but I think I’ll ignore Columbus Day this year.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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