Homage to Dear Friend Dr. Ivan Van Sertima

by William Loren Katz on October 24, 2009

Ivan Van Sertima[On September 12, 2009 colleagues, students and family members gathered at Kirkpatrick Chapel on the Rutgers University campus for a Memorial Service honoring Ivan Van Sertima, the distinguished anthropologist, historian, linguist and author. William Loren Katz prepared these words about his colleague and friend of many years.]

I first wish to thank and honor Jacqueline whose consummate knowledge in so many fields and abiding love have helped make Ivan’s crusade a success. Ivan’s research clarified the real legacy of people of African and Native American descent and for this reason stands as a contribution to all humanity and to historical truth.

Born in Guyana, Ivan never forgot his roots — the great African and Native American cultures from which he sprang and the struggle against colonialism and imperialism waged by his father’s people — with a touch of Irish rebellion thrown in.

White establishment scholars, led by Arnold Toynbee, arrogantly insisted Africans made no contribution to civilization, none, zero. So Ivan’s work was revolutionary and treated as heresy. When a leading British critic called They Came Before Columbus “ignorant rubbish” Ivan learned anew that a rant from an aristocrat whose ideological ancestors were among the beasts who despoiled the Americas simply proved he was doing something right. He had declared war against perpetrators of racial superiority, and against any who would crush intellectual or other uprisings by his people, and fought with his best weaponry.

Ivan’s overwhelming evidence struck at the Achilles Heel of racist scholarship — who discovered the Americas? Who contributed to science? Who created civilization? Unwilling to confront his challenges to everything they breathed, propagated and profited from, many of his critics scurried away. Others still lurk around.

On a personal note I was lecturing at the American Museum of Natural History and elsewhere on related topics, when They Came Before Columbus appeared and I accidentally became collateral damage to Ivan’s genius. Many in my audiences stated in polite and indirect ways they would have preferred to discuss Ivan Van Sertima’s book. Masses of ordinary people had been galvanized and could not get enough of him. What an incredible educational achievement, and victory for humanity!

When I mentioned my audience responses to Ivan years ago, he fired off a generous letter to me. I never had a reason to make it public, but today wish to share his words about the choices he saw the two of us making.

“Bill and I have enjoyed a friendship for many years, but we have been so consumed by the volume and uniqueness of our work, that for a while it seemed as though we had met in an earlier life. And maybe we did, for we have been brothers, in the true sense of the word, during most of my important years here in the United States. We, as scholars, have shared visuals, documents, stimulating discussions, and a complex, misunderstood and colorful sense of history, unparalleled by most historians.

“Our missions were the same — to break the barriers of miseducation and isolation that has characterized the African American’s experience on this soil, before and after the arrival of Christopher Columbus.” 1

I will treasure these words forever.

Ivan was a superb linguist, anthropologist, historian, and a poet with a powerful sense of irony. He earned that the hard way. What do you do when your oppressors beat you down with their weapons, enslave you for centuries, and then insist on writing your history — and boast, this time in print, how they whipped you, and it was all for the best? I found part of the answer built into the ironic response Ivan inserted into the three sentences that state his major thesis. “I am not the first person to suggest there were Africans in America before Columbus. Christopher Columbus is the first person to suggest this. [What a punch line!] He was also the first to present incontestable proof of it.” [An even more devastating punch line.] Listen to how his words laugh at the charlatans who perpetrated the Columbus myth as a way of trumpeting their superiority. I hear impeccable scholarship but I also hear Richard Pryor as historian. I believe Ivan could have brought the brilliantly barbed irony of his important message to Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Jon Stewart! I still aspire to that kind of writing.

I loved my talks with Ivan and Jacqueline over the years. I was so pleased he called my Black Indians “ground breaking” and delighted he was able to use its historical pictures and other evidence in his magnificent Early America Reconsidered.

Ivan Van Sertima freed us from the shackles clamped on our minds by those who disfigured world history — what a gift to the world. An incomparable scholar, a delightful human being, he will live forever as a poetic freedom fighter armed to the teeth with facts, and dangerous. He joins the ancestors his work sought to rescue from the plantations and reservations their foes constructed. What a reception they must have prepared for him in Heaven!

Ivan Van Sertima has said farewell to us, but luckily, we will never have to say farewell to him, thanks to his work and Jackie.

Thank you Ivan, my brother in the true sense of the word. Thank you Jacqueline, my sister, if I may, thank you so much.


  1. Ivan Van Sertima, February 5, 2005, “My Friend and Fellow Scholar, Bill Katz.” The last paragraph of this letter follows: “Bill has conducted very thorough and impressive research for his many books such as Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, which explores the little known historical legacy between both peoples. His focus is on the resourcefulness and ability of two people of color to unite in a common struggle against slavery and the tide of European conquest. His outstanding documentary and visual evidence form a substantial and, needless to say, significant contribution to our understanding of the long and bitter struggle for freedom in early America.”
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  • Jill Cotter

    Dear William Katz,
    I attended a conference in Belmopan, Belize, last week about the African presence in the New World before Columbus organized by Dr. Arande with guest speaker Dr. Floyd Hayes III. Unfortunately, they spoke in generalities that didn’t satisfy those of us who were looking for specific examples.

    They did mention the major expedition launched by the Mali empire, the Olmec heads, but not much else.

    Do you agree with this thesis and have you done research into this topic?

    • I believe Dr. Van Sertima’s research supports his thesis, and one should consult his
      book or his illustrated lecture at the Smithsonian Institution.
      I am not an anthropologist, but know as an historian that explorer Balboa met African people
      near Panama.

  • You mention Early America Reconsidered, and Ivan’s book is Early America Revisited. I provided the Amazon web site as proof.

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