This is the first in a seven-blog series on history. In this blog, I describe how blacks were viewed in history as I was growing up, how I was able to overcome the negative views of blacks in history, and how my view of the world was altered when I learned about the Olmec civilization.
An Olmec bust
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I, like most Americans, believed the history of Africans in the Americas began in 1619 when the first shipment of black slaves arrived. And, as I grew up with this history, what convinced me I could be successful were my parents’ stories about the achievements of the Bells, Cooks, Glenns and Denbys, my grandparents’ families.
A story about the Denbys, my mother’s mother’s family, was that one of her grandfathers was one of the first black patrolmen in Philadelphia. On my father’s side was a story of the Bells who migrated first to Oklahoma and later to California. These relatives were described as wealthy individuals. These and other stories fostered a “can do” attitude within me that said there was nothing I could not do. And, had I known in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was doing family history research, about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, I would have asked the handful of relatives, from that branch of the family, if they or their parents were survivors of the Tulsa race massacre, and had left Oklahoma to avoid being killed.
But in spite of these sources of pride, I still felt the weight of being a black American. The weight of a history where ancient black societies had no boats able to make a transatlantic trip, and were seen as illiterate, uncivilized people who benefitted from the slave trade because it introduced them to the positive elements of Western civilization. This negative view of blacks in history was reinforced by my 11th grade history teacher who told me when I complained about the lack of black accomplishments being highlighted in his history class, that it was good black accomplishments were not taught because then everyone would see how few accomplishments there were. In short, I was weighed down by a version of history that said I was descended from a race of people who had contributed nothing of significance to the arc of human progress and civilization.
Then one day, while in college and attending a conference on civil rights, I heard about the existence of a black Indian tribe in the Americas. While I could not remember the name or location of the tribe, the existence of black people in the Americas before 1619, fired my imagination and created a desire to locate this black tribe. For, if this black tribe existed, it contradicted the version of history I was taught that said the first blacks to arrive in the Americas were brought by whites as slaves or servants. The history I was taught also said pre-Columbian black Africans had neither the boats nor the knowledge to traverse the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas. In short, blacks were seen as backward, slow, and a “beggar in the wilderness of history, a menial or an eternal and immutable slave.”
Hence, the presence of a black Indian tribe would mean the history I was taught was incomplete. When I began my search, I hoped finding the black Indian tribe would prove that blacks made it to the Americas, in a pre-Columbian past, as explorers not slaves or servants. I also hoped to remove some of the virtual graffiti that colors and distorts what I and others see every time we look through the window of time to see and interpret history.
I use the term “graffiti that colors and distorts” what I and others see when we look at the past through the window of time because it seems to describe what is happening. According to Wikipedia, “graffiti is writing or drawings made on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view” that “ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings.” And, the descriptions and images of blacks in history as lacking in maritime abilities, indigenous written languages, and advanced technology, culture, architecture, or civilizations are false. Hence, the descriptions and images discounting blacks as a source for past civilizations distorts reality and exist in public view without the permission of the people being portrayed.
As I conducted my research, what I found surpassed what I had imagined. For in searching for a black Indian tribe in the Americas, I found the Olmec civilization. The Olmec civilization was the first known Mesoamerican civilization. It arose around 1200 B.C and lasted for approximately 800 years until 400 B.C. Located in the modern-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmec civilization laid many of the foundations for the Mesoamerican civilizations that followed like the Mayans and Aztecs. And, while many historians in the 1970s considered the written language and origins of the Olmecs to be a mystery, research by people like Dr. Ivan Van Sertima has shown that much of the technology and written language of the Olmecs is derived from 25th Dynasty Egyptian and West African traits circa 800 to 654 B.C.
The bust, at the start of this blog, is one of seventeen giant head sculptures carved from large basalt boulders and are 3.8 to 11.2 feet in size. These busts were created during the Olmec civilization. Interestingly, many historians have dismissed the likeness of these statutes to black people by concluding that they are stylized images or noting that there are people living in the area of the statutes today who resemble the busts and are therefore native American not African in origin. Similarly, in seeking to identify the source of the Olmec written script historians concluded that “there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologists to decipher the language.” And since the graffiti that colors and distorts what we see when we look through the window onto history says that no African cultures created a system of writing, most archeologists saw no reason to waste their time searching for the origins of the Olmec script in an African civilization.
At one point in Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s book, They Came Before Columbus, it says the Olmecs arrived on the Mexican Gulf Coast circa 1200 B.C. and shortly after their appearance “all kinds of civilized activity appears including massive organization of labour, a trade network, ceremonial centres with pyramids, colossal sculpture, relief carving, wall painting, orientation of structures, gods and religious symbolism, an obsession with the Underworld, representation of foreign racial types, hierographic writing and scripts, seals and rings, use of iron”, and other innovations.
In discussing the Olmec civilization and the impact of peoples of Africa on its creation, Dr. Van Sertima notes that the “Olmecs were a people of three faces, one of which was Mongoloid which may have come from Asia after the glacial migrations across the Bering Strait but blended indistinguishably with the Ice Age Americans. The “second face or influence was Negroid.” The third suggests a trace of Mediterranean Caucasoids, probably Phoenicians who were related historically to the second face. According to Dr. Van Sertima, these three faces became one face to which the broad name “Olmec” was given. Dr. Van Sertima sees these three faces as a fusion or marriage of cultures, not a fatal collision of cultures. But as Dr. Van Sertima notes on page 35, the “influence of Negro-Africans on Olmec culture … was considerable.”
In discussing African influences on the Olmec civilization Dr. Van Sertima cites: 1) Egyptian type pyramids; 2) Egyptian type mummies; 3) false beards worn by high priests; 4) trepanned skulls where a surgical procedure drills a hole or scrapes into the human skull; 5) stelae which are upright stone slabs or columns typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design; 6) hieroglyphs; and 7) the ritual use of purple as an exclusively royal and priestly color. Some say these similarities are due to coincidence. While this may be true for one or two similarities, the number of similarities indicates they are due to contact between Africa and the Native American Olmec peoples. For example, if there is a 50% chance Olmec and Egyptian pyramids are the same and a 50% chance Egyptian and Olmec mummies are the same, then the chance both traits would exist in both cultures would be 25%. Add a third trait and the likelihood drops to 12.5%. At seven common traits the likelihood becomes less than 1% that the similarities are due to coincidence.
Combining the above traits with the fact that 13.5% of the skeletons examined in the pre-classic Olmec cemetery of Tlatilco “were Negroid,” the existence of seventeen giant head sculptures like the one at the start of this blog, and similarities between the Olmec and West African Mande written scripts, a black African influence on the formation of the Olmec civilization becomes clear. Based on Dr. Van Sertima’s work, blacks also influenced the Andean civilizations in Peru.
The conclusion that runs through the history blog series, as articulated by Dr. Van Sertima, is that what “is needed far more than new facts is a fundamentally new vision of history.” During the upcoming history series, I shall attempt to introduce a small glimmer of that new vision.
My next blog will focus on the ancient Egyptian civilization.