Yosef ben-Jochannan, one of the last of the Harlem activist-intellectuals of the 20th century—those fiery, independent scholars who taught classical African history and shaped it into a sword against white supremacy—died Thursday after a long illness. He was 96.
The man known as Dr. Ben joined his ancestors the morning of the first day of the annual meeting of the organization he helped found, the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. ASCAC, meeting in Seattle this year, describes itself as a group with a mission to create a “body of knowledge that continuously contributes to the rescue, reconstruction, and restoration of African history and culture.”
“Our people are now safeguarded [in] the after-life by Dr. Ben, Dr. [John Henrik] Clarke, Dr. [Cheikh Anta] Diop, Minister Malcolm X, Elijah [Muhammad], The Honorable Marcus Garvey … and many more of our greats,” announced Leonard Jeffries in a quickly circulated announcement email.
“Though painful, this is a victory, that we had him for 97 plus [sic] years,” continued Jeffries, retired professor of Africana studies at the City College of New York and one of ben-Jochannan’s unofficial aides.
Dr. Ben became a fabled Harlem luminary over the decades as one of the founding scholars and lecturers in what is now known as Africana studies.
He educated more than two generations of activists while influencing classical African and Judeo-Christian historiographies and Pan-Africanist thought. He explained how the stories and teachings of Judaism and Christianity, for example, come from ancient Egyptian religious systems that existed thousands of years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
He sponsored tours to the center of the ancient black world—Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia—for at least three decades. He brought thousands of African Americans to Egypt especially, teaching about the now-Arab nation’s past in ways that reversed the established Western-civilization argument that the land of the pharaohs was a separate, whiter sphere than the rest of the African continent.
And it was that specific teaching—that the ancient Egyptians, proud members of the most advanced civilization in the ancient world (as well as the original Jews), were dark-skinned Africans—that made him so distinctive and beloved in black radical circles and controversial in white communities.
Dr. Ben was born in 1918 in Ethiopia. He moved to the United States in 1940 after going to school in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and universities in Puerto Rico and Havana. Originally studying engineering, he received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Havana.
He taught at City College and Malcolm-King: Harlem College Extension from the 1950s through the 1970s. In 1976, at the end of the birthing period for Africana studies as a formal academic discipline in American universities, he was given an adjunct appointment in the Africana-studies department at Cornell University, where he taught for several years.
Dr. Ben’s 49 books, pamphlets and academic papers reflect his decades of teaching, research and activism around New York and the world. His most popular books include African Origins of Major ‘Western Religions’; Black Man of the Nile and His Family; and We, the Black Jews: Witness to the ‘White Jewish Race’ Myth, Volumes I & II.
The reverence that black activists and others shared for Dr. Ben was not held by other, more mainstream Africana-studies and Western-civilization scholars, who characterized his teachings as racially polemical, overly simplistic and inaccurate. White scholars of classic European history who attempted to debunk Afrocentric studies called him out by name. He debated Jewish activists about the racial history of Egypt and the subsequent racial politics of the Middle East.
Dr. Ben remained a strong “race man” his entire life. Unlike many black scholars who donate their papers to places like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City or the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, in 2002 Dr. Ben donated his personal library—an estimated 35,000 books, ancient scrolls and manuscripts—to the Nation of Islam.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.