They Came Before Columbus – a mythological text
The African presence in America before Columbus is of importance not only to African and American history but to the history of world civilizations. It provides further evidence that all great civilizations and races are heavily indebted to one another and that no race has a monopoly on enterprise and inventive genius. – Ivan Van Sertima
I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark. – Dick Gregory
Unfortunately, I wasn’t blessed with Dick Gregory’s astute perception as a child. I believed in Santa Claus. I believed in the thick white man dressed in the candy-cane pajamas. I believed he received every wish list I ever sent him. I believed in the magical reindeer that led his sleigh through the veil of night, taking him house to house. I believed that he slid down chimneys, despite his size, thanks to some magical power, and left the nice kids present and the naughty one’s coal. The fact that we lived in an apartment, then a house without a chimney, never once gave me pause. I went on believing a lie, which on the surface made a whole heap of sense, but once explored, was full of holes. I believed because I wanted to. It made me feel like warm chocolate syrup melting over gooey marshmallows. When a lie can make you feel that good, why bother with the truth? But are lies like Santa harmful? Other than the concept of a white man, controlling an omnipotent eye, determining children’s worthiness, on a scale of naughty and nice he created, there is not much lasting damage from the myth of Santa Claus. But what happens when those lies turn to focus on our history?
History has always been my favorite subject. I’d launch myself from the taped green leather bus seats, stutter down the rigged metal steps and run home to watch the History Channel, hoping to catch a new episode of Clash of the Gods or Dog Fights or catch an interesting documentary I had never seen before. I just hoped it wasn’t anything that involved Black folks. As a Black American from the South, as I know many Black children across the world felt, a part of me grew up with much disdain for what was taught as Black history–slavery, and civil rights. A heavy repetition of Martin Luther King every year eventually falls on ignoring ears and becomes nothing more than noise. Surely there had to be more to our story. Surely, we were more than chains and dog bites in the ass.
It is impossible for me to imagine that any Black native reaches adulthood without sporting the welts of heavy-handed lessons that reinforce the idea of Black inferiority. I know it was inescapable for me. No matter how often I tried to dodge the biting lash I found myself in pain, watching repeated images of powerful hoses knocking peaceful protestors well off their feet, staring at grotesque pictures of strange fruit dangling that naan person wanted to eat so it was left to rot and spoil. My gut tightened, curling into knots like that of an uncombed kitchen. How could anyone enjoy their history when it caused so much pain in the present?
As it is difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that Black natives can’t be scared by this country, it is equally improbable that Black natives don’t experience a lust for self. Masturbatory actions aside, many Black folks find themselves dying of thirst. Thirsty for knowledge. Thirsty for self. Thirsty for knowledge of self. Thirsty for an identity, somehow removed from tired lessons learned in grade school. Why else would there be so many African-American studies classes on campuses or niggas on the block loccin’ their hair, hanging up Huey or Malcolm posters, and seeking out Islam? Niggas ain’t sporting dashiki, ankhs, and kufis for some fashion statement, but to make a political stand. And like the African-Americans in college classes, niggas on the block, old negros in their rocking chairs, Black Americans with their fists raised, I too thirsted for knowledge, not in any textbook I was ever given.
Without any assigned Black literature on our history, I went searching on my own. After a few strokes on the keyboard and filtering through pages on Amazon, I found titles like Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D., The Black History of the White House, and the very subject of this essay, Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America.
In said book, Van Sertima claimed that Africans, some from the East Coast (Egyptians, Sudanese Nubians, Phoenicians) and some from the West Coast (Malians), penetrated the fertile shores of America well before Columbus. His main evidence, also the cover of his book, was the giant stone heads of the ancient Olmec people of modern-day Mexico. Van Sertima came to this conclusion by clinging to a supremacist’s view of race, originating from a scientifically shitted on concept by the 18th-century German scientist, Johann Blumenbach (Escobano) – the Five Race Model placed the Caucasian race at the top and described the other races as descending mutations from the original. “Blumenbach chose to regard his own European variety as closest to the created idea” (Jay Gould, 1994).
With this understanding of race, Van Sertima argued that the Negroid features of African descendent people, broad noses and full lips, found on the Olmec heads were clear indicators that they came to visit the Americas before Columbus. According to Van Sertima’s hypothesis not only had ancient Africans visited the Americas, but they heavily influenced Meso-American culture providing “the impetus for the building of Pyramids and ceremonial centers and introduces a number of technological innovations and practices which presumably influence Mesoamerica religion mythology customs and even the calendar” (Haslip-Viera et al., 1997).
Just as the boy who wished that the magic of the world was real to the touch, I accepted Van Sertima’s book as fact. He confirmed everything I hoped, so desperately, to believe in. He confirmed the great supremacy of African descendants. What escaped me at the time of reading it was his wild assumptions based on no fact-finding of his own. And it was no fact-finding of my own that made me realize his work was nothing more than a pseudoscientific book meant to blind readers, but instead the findings of actual Meso-American researchers. It began from a podcast called Tales from Aztlantis and an episode “Hijacking History (The Problem with the “Black Olmec” Myth).” The two hosts Kurly Tlapoyawa and Ruben Arellano Tlakatekat, are some of those Meso-American researchers that showed me the light. In the episode, the two were initially responding to a now-retracted article championing Van Sertima’s conclusion that the giant Olmec heads and subsequently Meso-American culture were African in origin and sought to teach it in schools. Shocked by this, the two scholars wrote an open letter to the journal that published the article, the “Urban Review.”
“The idea of ‘Black Olmecs’ is rooted in pseudohistorical revisionism and is not accepted by legitimate Mesoamerican scholars. It should be made clear that no archaeological, faunal, floral, genetic, or historical evidence exists to support the myth of ‘Black Olmecs.’ In fact, scholars such as Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Warren Barbour, and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano have published extensive research refuting Van Sertima and the myth of ‘Black Olmecs’” (Tlapoyawa & Tlakatekatl).
After listening to the podcast and reading the scholars’ open letter, I, for the first time, questioned Van Sertima. I never even thought some Meso-American scholars would have been more qualified to refute or assert his claims. Instead, what I did was immediately cling to the book because of my confirmation bias. It was a confirmation bias rooted in an innate desire to disconnect with the–what I want once thought was–tragic history of Black Americans. It is why all of us with melanated skin whose ancestors traveled via boat on the waves of the Atlantic are so readily accepting of tales of African kings and queens. These tales and Van Sertima’s lies prey on our desire to be important. We get told so much, through various means, that we don’t matter. So when anyone comes to challenge such rhetoric, our minds open like Waffle House, welcoming whoever and whatever at all times of the night. But let’s be real, there are way too many Black folks in America for everybody to have been royalty. We don’t need to erase other cultures to uplift ours by invoking an Aryan supremacist ideology or slip down the slope of absurdity, embracing narratives of Black history that deify our ancestors. We need to recognize our true history of laborers, nameless freedom fighters, servers, and other plain-jane roles that were on the front line making a difference. We can create a more just world and write a more just history that way.
Dominique Alexander McPhearson
The history of African and Indigenous collaboration in the Americas — captured in oral traditions and in the existence of liberation efforts still unfolding — is so rich, varied and beautiful that this is a cases where the truth is more amazing than any fiction. Thank you for this insightful reflection.