4.8.22

My first visit to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast will not be the last

 


Titus Groan: Vol. 1 of Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake (1946)

           

            After almost 400 pages, and two years in the life of the title character, I have completed my first foray into the weird, wild, and oppressive world of Gormenghast.  This nearly 80-year old epic begins with the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to the current Earl of Gormenghast, a man whose family line has ruled this walled city-state for millennia.

            What let me know I was in for an unusual story was the initial section of this novel, as Mervyn Peake takes several pages to describe the walled city of Gormenghast, introducing us to the real main character of this tale, the city itself.  Mountains on one side and a forest lake on the other surround the ancient sprawling castle, if it can be rightly called a castle.  Inside the walls of the massive city, its denizens spend their every waking hour in the pursuit of their labors, dictated purely by ritual and birth.  Those born to kitchen workers will be kitchen workers.  Those born to the unfortunate people that live outside the castle, the mud dwellers, are destined to remain outsiders.  The individual duties and positions within the castle being determined not by human decisions but by the countless precedents set by previous Gormenghast Earls and their families.  Every single action is either part of a daily ritual, or mirrors some ancient rite, the reasons for it obscured by time and generations.  No one asks questions.  No one seeks to change his or her position in this world.

            Nowhere in this work does Mervyn Peake specify how many people live within the confines of Gormenghast.  It could be tens of thousands, or just a few hundred.  Either way, the vast expanse of this sprawling city-state lays mostly deserted, with rooms, towers, dungeons, and hallways remaining unused for decades at a time, until some event or dictated ritual requires it.  The people we are introduced to come mostly from the retinue of the Earl himself, Lord Sepulchrave (the characters all have such evocative names!).  There is the Head Cook, Mr. Swelter, a fat, slovenly man that runs a small army of servants and kitchen workers whose task is to prepare meals for the citizens as well as the various cyclical feasts and formal events in the castle.  There is Lord Sepulchrave himself, who spends most of his time away from his family, absorbed in books found within an ancient, massive library, of which only the Earl seems to frequent.  There is the Earl’s wife, Countess Gertrude, a very large woman whose sole interests lay in the cats and birds of Gormenghast.  There is the daughter and eldest child of the Earl, Fuschia Groan, a young woman with little purpose in life, and her nanny, Mrs. Slagg, an old, tiny woman who has essentially raised the Earl’s daughter, and will be tasked with the care of the infant Titus. 

Another critical character is introduced, a young man by the name of Steerpike who, after manipulating his way out of what would have been life-long servitude in the Gormenghast kitchens, begins to worm himself into the world of the top servants and the rulers of the castle.  This Steerpike will drive the plot forward as his ever more grand plans start to take shape.

Most novels introduce the characters and dive right into plot.  Not these Gormenghast books.  I venture that around 70% of the novel consists of detailed, meaningful descriptions of the castle buildings, walls, towers, plazas, hallways, rooms, and the surrounding countryside.  Initially this distracted me, as I am so used to the standard plot formats of 20th century fantasy fiction.  However, once my mind adapted to Mervyn Peake’s prose, it all made much more narrative sense.  The castle is eternal, or may as well be, having seen the rise and fall of dozens and dozens of generations, each one living and dying within the city walls, each one just a small blip in the lengthy life of Gormenghast castle itself. 

The lives of the Gormenghast residents mirror the lives of every heir to any throne in human history.  Their entire existence dictated by ritual, and formal decrees, forcing them to live by codes of honor, with no individuality allowed for it would disturb propriety.  If they are fortunate they end up handing the throne down to their children, who hand it to their children, etc.  There is always someone trying to take what is yours.  There is always some conniving relative attempting to either discredit or outright murder someone in order for his or her progeny to take the throne.  How many members of the British Royal family, for example, count as their only confidants and friends those who serve them?  This is the way of royalty, of entrenched ritual for ritual’s sake.  It is everything I despise in human governance.  Mervyn Peake seems to despise it as well, for the manner in which he details the people of Gormenghast is far less respectful than the way he describes the castle itself.  The castle has dignity, wisdom, and must be respected, whereas those who live within its walls are buffoons, dullards, and inbred.

The book ends with the title character, Titus Groan, reaching his 2nd birthday, and the formal celebrations that will mark him as the new Earl of Gormenghast.  Those most sensitive and perceptive can sense a great change coming.  Change is the ultimate evil in Gormenghast.  Change effects everyone, seen as unnecessary and unwanted.  The next book in this trilogy is titled Gormenghast.  I fully expect to immerse myself once more within the dark, sullen, masonry and the weird, desperate characters that make it their home.  I already feel as if I will walk the halls and rooms of Gormenghast for the rest of my life.

16.6.22

Rudy Rucker Shares His Life Story

 


Nested Scrolls – Rudy Rucker (2011)


            I feel like I just had a long, thoughtful conversation with one of my favorite authors.  Not only was it engrossing and entertaining, but it made me appreciate the man himself more than ever.  Rudy Rucker has long been someone whose books shape my mind.  He easily describes the most complex of ideas all the while making me crack up.  I find him to be one of the few authors, similar to Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, who makes the reader laugh as much as he makes them think, sometimes in the same sentence!  This is how my mind works, and reading Rucker’s life story, I can see so many similarities to myself.  Life can be quite tough for people who choose to explore and think about topics normally avoided by the public, especially those who create something for others to absorb, whether it be literature, paintings, or music.

            Rudy Rucker begins his tale with a description of the brain hemorrhage he experienced in the summer of 2008, aged 62, and his brush with mortality. One of the realizations he describes really hit home, as it is a truth that I have come to understand.  Rucker states, “The richest and most interesting parts of my life are the sensations that come in from the outside.  Our thoughts and ideas are merely reflections of the beauty and grandeur of the world around us, if we only take the time to actually look and listen, without judgement.  We all proceed through our lives as if we are the protagonist in a grandiose and important tale that matters to all.  Our self-importance seems to dictate the world around us.  However, the truth is that we are but reflectors of the world at large, and our self-importance blinds us to how fortunate we are to just breathe, eat, sleep, and love, existing in the amazing and infinite world that surrounds each of us.  This experience drove Rudy Rucker to write his autobiography, but without any of the self-promotional aspects of such writing.

            Reading about Rudy’s childhood and family was a joy.  Rucker’s writing style is so deceptively casual that his story flows smoothly, and I found myself as engrossed in his life as if it was one of his works of fiction.  Many of his childhood experiences mirror my own, and many of the questions he asked about the world around him I asked in my youth.  Rudy Rucker had to wait until he was much older to find people whose curiosity and genius matched his own.  It is a lonely thing to grow up understanding that most around you either do not ask, or simply do not care to know, about difficult ideas and concepts.  Expanding one’s mind, something that comes ridiculously easy to most toddlers and children, is beaten out of us by life, society, parents that do not care, and other such brutalities.  It creates a nation of adults who do not seek to understand, or to explore, but who want safety and certainty above all else.  Certainty is the absolute bane of wisdom.  Throughout Nested Scrolls, Rucker describes the many times he dealt with such inanity, from school to church to workplaces.  A freethinker will always threaten the status quo.  These moments truly resonated with me.

            Apart from learning about Rudy Rucker’s life and experiences, I enjoyed the sections in which he describes his state of mind as he wrote his various literary works.  Writers write.  It is their way of existing.  I have always enjoyed reading about the creative process of the people I admire.  I was reminded that while Rudy Rucker has written some of the most mind-expanding and hilarious science fiction literature I have ever read, he also wrote one of the most beautiful books, a historical fiction novel detailing the life and times of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder titled As Above, So Below.  It is a triumph.

            One of the themes I found in Nested Scrolls is that of the “fringe” individual, and how to best exist as one.  Rudy Rucker studied and taught mathematics, but was seen as too weird and “out there” to belong with the mathematicians.  He studied computer science, but his metaphysical ideas about computing and the mind were too much for his fellow computer scientists.  Rucker wrote many amazing books, yet was pigeonholed as a science fiction author.  Far too many writers demean science fiction as if it was trash writing, not worthy of the high and mighty term “Literature.”  Not only that, many established science fiction authors isolate and demean writers like Rucker whose work is too transgressive, funny, or caustic for what they have determined is actual, hard science fiction.  The ego on these people!  If only they would see how blind they are, and that they have chosen to blind themselves with their intellectual bigotry. 

I relate to this aspect of Rudy Rucker’s life so much.   The Art Crowd found me too intellectual, too into sports, too into science, and too aware of the lies Art tells itself.  The jock crowd found me to artsy-fartsy, too mocking of the sacred ideas of sport competition, even though I love sports greatly.  The punk/underground music types found me too square, too “normal,” to truly accept me as part of that scene.  The “norms” found me too weird and uncaring about bullshit such as cars, money, or the latest useless status symbol.  It has been this way my whole life, and I feel it is that way for anyone whose mind and interests go too far beyond one or two self-defining characteristics.  The Public wants everyone to be easily defined, the faster the better, but people like Rucker and myself understand that the world does not work that way.  In fact, everything is far too complex for such simple-minded labels.  Much of Rudy Rucker’s work explores this idea.  As he states, and it is something I have myself claimed, there is no such thing as a “normal” person.  If you bother to scratch just below the surface, you will find that every single human you have ever met is a deeply weird individual creation.  The worst thing you could do for yourself is to force your life into the very narrow definitions that the people around you expect you to be.  They are the ignorant ones.  They are the ones whose minds are atrophied and scared of difference. 

Often Rudy Rucker describes how much of a grind it is to promote your work, to seek publishers, and to expand your readership.  Rucker has never had a “best seller” yet his works sell well and he is always able to publish his material.  His books are too weird for Hollywood, and none of them have yet been made into a feature film.  He taught at various Universities to make a living, but it took him over 35 years to get tenure.  All the while, he shared his life with his lovely wife and their three children, and as he describes their lives, I can see how much their love and stability aided him in his dream of writing science fiction.  Perhaps he is the most fortunate of all, experiencing a full life, while living out his childhood dreams.  Too many people consider you a failure if you do not become “the BEST,” or “the RICHEST,” or “the MOST FAMOUS!”  These are all meaningless labels.  Rudy Rucker grew up, married, started a family, taught countless students, created dozens of original works of literature, shared his ideas with readers worldwide, and even took up oil painting at a late age!  He is a success by any true measure, and I am so glad to have read his autobiography.  Rudy Rucker may not know me, but I count him as my lifelong friend.  Thanks for sharing the Gnarl, Rudy!

(This book may be read here: https://www.rudyrucker.com/nestedscrolls/ )

10.5.22

Pascal Garnier's Novel Brings the NOIR!

 


The Panda Theory – Pascal Garnier (2008)


            Previously on this blog, I mentioned how I love randomly running across new books to read.  I especially love when someone sets up a shelf or box full of free books for whoever wishes to read them.  My workplace, the Baylor College of Medicine on Houston, Texas, has such a shelf near the cafeteria.  I have culled several great medical texts from it.  Normally I stay away from the novels placed on that shelf, as they tend to be entertainments like Patricia Cornwall or some other such author, but this small grey book caught my eye.  I was unfamiliar with the author, Pascal Garnier, but after reading the front and back cover, I was intrigued.  On the inside, I noted that the book was a translation from the original French.  I always enjoy finding a new author, especially one from a non-English speaking country, so I grabbed it and dove right in.

            The very first paragraph on Page 1 sucked me in.  A man, disembarking off a train in Breton, finds himself in a nearly deserted train station, hands filthy after travelling, and heads out into the quiet “nondescript town” whose air smells faintly of manure.  He finds a room, and proceeds to look for a place to have dinner.  The woman running the desk at the Hotel, and the man running the local pub, offer welcome at the same time they bemoan the lack of anything to do in the small town. 

            Gabriel, the protagonist, quickly enmeshes himself with the locals he meets.  He is an exceedingly good cook, which comes in handy several times, but he has something disquieting deep inside him of which we are barely aware.  As the story progresses, we sometimes go back in time to experience Gabriel’s life before he arrived in this small town.  In this manner, Pascal Garnier slowly unfolds Gabriel’s past.  With each passage, we start to understand that for all the peace and calm shown by Gabriel with his new friends, there is a deep disquiet contained in the man. 

            Gabriel ingratiates himself with the various locals he has gotten to know.  We learn of their lives, as they explain to Gabriel the reason for their current states.  Gabriel listens, and seems to relate.  However, as we soon learn, Gabriel’s past has changed him deeply, leaving him almost emotionless.  The way he describes the world around him informs the reader of the true state of Gabriel’s mind.  His internal dialogue is cynical, detached, joyless, yet deeply observant.

            As with all the novels I review on the Intellectual Journey, I will not go into further detail concerning the plot of The Panda Theory.  Novels are unfolding mysteries and to give anything away is anathema to me.  However, I will say that it has been a long while since I found an author that spoke so clearly, yet so descriptively.  Pascal Garnier’s writing is lucid, clear, simple, and constantly surprising.  I give great credit to the translator!  I am so excited to have discovered a new author.  That is one of my favorite things in reading. I will definitely hunt for more Pascal Garnier novels!  I highly recommend this book, a quick read whose story will stick with me for a long time.

(This book can be purchased here: https://belgraviabooks.com/product/the-panda-theory )

25.4.22

My Hero, Harry Houdini, Tells It Like It Is Yet Again!

 


Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Expose’ of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. – Harry Houdini (1920)

  

            My idol, Harry Houdini, does it again.  What an amazing person he was!  Not only did he create a new form of vaudeville entertainment with his escapes and feats, but, after he reached success, he also devoted much of his time to exposing the lies of the charlatans and crooks who preyed on the ignorant.  In a previously reviewed work, A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini exposed the tricks used by mediums, and other spiritualist charlatans.  It is an amazing work, and it should be shared in all schools to help foster critical thinking in our children.   This book, Miracle Mongers and their Methods, explores the other side of the con-artist trade which deals not with religion or spiritualism, but with the performances and exhibitions provided at the “dime museums” and other such entertainments of the time.

            Houdini worked his trade during a time when scientists were still fooled by charlatans focused on keeping their tricks secret.  In his first chapter, dealing with Fire Eaters and Heat Resistance, Houdini provides old quotes from newspapers and magazines which purport to show how a scientist found no trickery in a certain performance, all because he did not know where to look for the trickery.  The sad fact, as Houdini shows, is that the method and means by which these performers managed to fool the audiences had been published and disseminated many times in the past, only to be forgotten by the public at large and used again by new hucksters, ready to fleece a new generation of ignorant people.  Every aspect, from the concoctions used on the skin and mouth to prevent injury, to the methods by which asbestos was woven to imitate wool clothing, is covered by Houdini and shown to be previously understood, even centuries before. 

Of the newer performances, featuring the drinking of boiling oil, or the eating of molten lead, Houdini provides the exact method and means by which the effects are achieved.  For example, one showman would dip a spoon into molten lead, then place the spoonful of liquid metal into his mouth, only to have it cool and solidify into a shape molding his teeth, which he would spit out for everyone to see, as if via miracle.  Houdini easily explains this.  He states that a spoon with a large hollow handle is prepared.  In the handle lies a quantity of quicksilver (Mercury), which, when tilted, would appear to fill the spoon ladle.  This spoon is placed carefully atop the molten lead and tilted, so when the performer pulls the spoon up and shows it to the audience it appears full of molten, liquid, lead.  He then pretends to put this liquid in his mouth, while actually tilting back the mercury into the spoon’s hollow handle.  He previously, through sleight-of-hand, placed a lead mold of his teeth in his mouth, which is what he takes out to “prove” the truth of his lead-eating act.  Overall, quite a simple magic trick, but one that would fool anyone who did not know about stage trickery.

Houdini explains the tricks used by all of these fakers in detail.  He describes the course of training one must endure to be able to do sword-swallowing tricks.  The first problem is growing accustomed to ignoring the gag reflex, something that just takes patience and willpower.  As the esophagus and stomach extend around 30 inches in length, most sword-swallowers will use 20-24 inch blades. Some of the more extreme performers would heat a sword until it glowed red, and then proceed to “swallow” it.  Houdini states that this is a fairly simple deception, with the performer having “swallowed” a sword scabbard made of asbestos offstage, which would protect the performer from burns.  (Who is to say whether the asbestos itself caused cancer damage?)  While exposing their tricks, Houdini never fails to mention the various real and true physical dangers and trauma that these performers would experience.

There is a lot of greatness in this short book, and anyone seeking to understand how people are fooled, how even respected scientists are fooled, should read this book.  The critical thinking required to see past the charlatan’s ruse is a muscle that must be exercised.  Houdini, in his life-long search for Truth and in his efforts to help the people who are too-easily fooled by crooks, did the world a great service.  The days of the Dime Museum and the freak show galleries are all gone now, but the charlatans are still here. They are just disguised as faith healers, mediums, magicians, and medical quacks.  I highly recommend this book to anyone studying stage magic, con-artists, charlatans, and the credulity of the common man.

(This book can be downloaded and read here: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/435 )

21.4.22

C.F. Volney Shared the Truth With Us Over Two Centuries Ago

 


The Ruins: Or, Meditation on the Revolution of Empires and the Law of Nature – C.F. Volney (1890)

SUN RA Reading List

            Every once in a while I come across a book that not only explores specific topics I am very interested in, but whose author has already processed the information available and reached conclusions that mirror my very own, even if it is an author writing almost a century before I was born.  I love the magic of literature!  Such is the case with Constantin-Francois Chassebeuf De Volney’s The Ruins, a dense and insightful work.

            Count Volney was a lifelong learner, seeking to find the truth.  He spent his youth learning classic languages, reading, and studying.  Once he entered adulthood, he learned Arabic and proceeded to travel to the parts of the world which, at the time, were forgotten and ignored.  He gazed upon the ancient marvels, mostly covered by desert sands, and thought hard about the cultures and people that created such wonders.  It led him to insights that are as valuable today as ever.

            Volney’s journey began in the Ottoman Empire, through areas that are now Syria and Egypt.  Everywhere he went he saw desolation, ruin, and human suffering.  He noted people living barely better than ancient tribal man did.  Upon exploring the ancient sepulchers of Egypt, a revelation occurred, and he asked himself questions that led to the creation of this work. 

“How has so much glory been eclipsed?” 

“How have so many labors been annihilated?”

            Volney asked himself how the works of man perish, empires vanish, and cultures and empires become lost into the mists of time.  Every ancient kingdom and culture he had studied was gone, with many of them forgotten by the world at large.  One large thought that occurred to him, living in the time of Christian nations, was that every one of these ancient and magnificent empires were peopled with what his contemporaries would describe as heretics, infidels, heathens of the worst type.  None of them followed the tenets of Christianity, yet their splendor outshone modern Christian nations.  It made little sense to him that, in the same lands that heathens created high culture and architecture, modern Muslims, Christians and Hebrews barely eked a subsistence. 

            Volney then spends time remembering his France, and Europe, which at the time considered themselves the heights of culture and sophistication.  He remembered the beauty of Parisian streets, and then thought about the far future, where the wonders of his age would be but dust-filled ruins, and all the beauty would be lost forever.  This is a sobering thought, and something that most people never consider.  Most people live their lives as if the present world will remain unchanging for all time, and are then shocked when the changes come.

            The bulk of The Ruins proceeds like a conversation between Volney himself, and an apparition that speaks to him, which Volney calls the Genius, as he gazes on the destroyed temples and buildings of ancient cultures.  This Genius hears Volney’s anguish about humanity’s past and proceeds to explain exactly how man has fallen low and the reasons why.   The Genius patiently explains the ancient history of humanity, the rise from base animal nature to consciousness.   He talks about how humanity first understood the world, Nature, as a thing external to himself.  He then proceeds to detail how this leads to every single theological idea we are all still fighting and killing each other over.

            Each chapter title describes the contents therein, such as The Primitive State of Man, The Sources of Evil in Society, The Origin of Government and Laws, The General Causes of the Revolutions and Ruins of Ancient States, to The Lessons of Times Past Repeated on The Present.  These topics are explored as the Genius describes the development of humanity.

            The second half of The Ruins is even more mind-blowing, as the Genius lifts Volney up and away, to heights where he can see the whole Earth both past and future.  He describes the various religious groups and sects gathering from all the world to listen to the Genius.  The Genius proceeds to question each group as to their beliefs.  It points out the many ways that the core beliefs of each religion get quickly buried under dogma, priesthoods, and the endless bickering of mortal man.  Each religion ends up in actuality directly opposite of the tenets they claim to preach.  One example, which applies to most religions, is this – God is unknowable, and all encompassing.  Instead of acting upon this Truth, every single Religion constantly seeks to tell their followers exactly what “god” is thinking, what “god” likes, what “god” does not like, etc., all in an effort to control the people.  They seek to diminish their “all-knowing” god with every proclamation and decree of dogma their followers must subscribe to, or else the “god” will send them to hell for eternal punishment.

            After doing so, the Genius then starts to get to basics, asking how the humans determine truth, and how, most of their religious beliefs are not based on truth but on human extrapolation and assumptions, all leading down a path away from the actual truth.  The way that religions warp their initial truths is near universal, especially once a governing power sees how easily religion can be used to control the actions of the populace.  The initial, ancient human “religions” were nothing more than the then-current descriptions of the natural world around them, especially the heavens which were cyclical, and whose close study allowed early humans to understand the coming of the seasons, the path of our Sun through the sky, and the cycles that are created.  These ancient humans did not have telescopes or scientific instruments as we possess today, but their observations alone were invaluable.  These observations, written in the poetic language of their time, were then misinterpreted by later generations who read their symbolism and, like simple-mined folk everywhere, took them literally.  This section of The Ruins is perfect for a student of comparative religion like myself.

            One of the coolest anecdotes about The Ruins is that, as the original is in French, the English translation came from the hand of Thomas Jefferson, that eminent Freethinker and U.S.A. “Founding Father.”  He managed to translate around 4/5 of it, and it must have been truly a dangerous proposition to do so.  In the late 1700’s the Roman Catholic Church still controlled much of the western world’s religious ideas, and to have this book available in English must have been a threat.  Parts of it were left untranslated for this very reason.  For every truth any religion claims, they force upon their followers a thousand lies.  These lies take over, and force the various Christian factions to war against each other, or the various Muslim factions to war against each other.  They especially force one Religion to fight against the others, as all of them claim they are the One True Faith, instead of recognizing that the core tenets and foundations of all religious belief are simple, common to all, and universal in every sense.  I highly recommend this book.

(This book can be read or downloaded for free here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1397/1397-h/1397-h.htm )

24.3.22

African Civilizations Reached the Americas Before Columbus, Thank Goodness

 


They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America – Ivan Van Sertima (1976)

           

            I come from a small island named Puerto Rico.  The people of Puerto Rico are a magnificent blend of native Taíno peoples, Spanish conquistadors, Africans, both slave and free, and a mish-mash of many other people who made their way to my little island.  I grew up my whole life with family and friends whose skin-tones ranged from the darkest browns to the palest of peach-pink, yet all were Puerto Rican.  While it is impossible to say that racism does not exist on my island, it is not the entrenched endemic racism found in Europe or the United States.  My people come in all colors.

            I say this because when my family moved to the USA in 1981 I began to read and study American schoolbooks.  In those texts, it was a given that the superior European (i.e. White) brought civilization, culture, science, and art to the New World, a land supposedly filled with backwards savages that could barely subsist, much less create amazing civilizations and engage in worldwide trade.  I found this so stupid, ignorant, and patently absurd.   Consider the fact that millions upon millions of humans lived throughout the Caribbean and the Americas for tens of thousands of years, with various high civilizations matching or dwarfing the achievements of contemporary cultures in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  For a textbook to say a small group of Spanish and Portuguese mercenary seamen led by a syphilitic and deeply ignorant Columbus “discovered” the entirety of the New World is plain false.  It aggrandizes a grade-A asshole and diminishes the soul and genius of everyone in the New World.

            Some of the greatest anthropological discoveries made in the New World seem to point to an influence from outside the New World centuries and even millennia before the travels of Columbus.  One would think that such finds would resonate in the literature of world history as examples of the ingenuity and resilience of the human spirit.  There is one problem, however.  The peoples that made contact with the New World between 600 BC and 1400 AD were Africans, dark-skinned people, and most of the researchers and historians, themselves raised under the blanket racist idea that white Europeans created all that is civilization and science and art in the world, could not bring themselves to accept that Africans could cross the Atlantic Ocean safely.  Africa not only fostered civilizations the magnitude of anything in Europe, they essentially created everything we hold to be the modern world.  Our civil and religious systems, our science and technology, our knowledge of animal husbandry, our ability to create agriculture, and so much more came directly from the heart of Africa.  Only the blind idiot racism of European historians could deceive them from these facts.  Not only were African’s contributions to the world dismissed as accidental, many of their achievements were, instead, assigned to later, whiter civilizations, as if Africa was not the mother of all humanity.

            Into this world, in 1976, Ivan Van Sertima released this amazing book, They Came Before Columbus.  From what I have read of its reception by academia, many established historians were deeply butt-hurt!  They could not imagine that Africans had the ability, much less the organization, to engage in trans-Atlantic travel.  Much of the contemporary criticism of this book sought to dismiss it entirely based on one or two small and quite meaningless points of contention.  Imagine you drawing a huge map of the continental United States using all your available research and someone shoots it all down because you failed to include some minor river or village.  Ridiculous.  However, this is exactly what Mr. Van Sertima experienced.  Non-white people of the world are used to being dismissed based on superficial bullshit.  Shit don’t change.

            Based on countless archeological, ethnographic, agricultural, and historical examples, Van Sertima shows that there were at least 2 periods where Africans came to the Americas, either as castaways on the trans-Atlantic current, or as members of large expeditionary forces sent by great African kings.  The oldest of these took place around 600BC, and coincided with the rise of the Olmec culture, from which most of the later native civilizations sprang.  Everyone is familiar with the giant Olmec heads, carved in basalt, which seem to portray Africa/Negro individuals.  Around this time, the Olmec people started creating step pyramids similar to the ones created in the Nubian kingdom that preceded the Egyptian dynasties. 

A second wave of African immigration to the New World occurred sometime between 1000 AD and 1200 AD, which coincides with the histories provided by West African peoples.  They spoke of massive fleets sent out from western Africa heading west to a new world.  This may seem weird, based on the false notions we have been taught that state the African was backwards, ignorant, and lacking in technological knowhow.  In fact, the desert-wandering Africans were the first people that understood navigation by the stars, and how to use both longitude and latitude to determine location.  Their ideas and instruments disseminated into the ancient Mediterranean by the Phoenicians who traded with these highly advanced African civilizations.  The racism barely hidden in the history books tries to portray the Phoenicians as the true innovators, relegating the Africans who sailed with the Phoenicians to slave or menial status.  Racism is a bitch and demeans everyone involved.

I wish I could write more and more about this book, but it is better read that talked about.  Much of the subject matter and topics covered in this book has been ignored since its publication, as the European historians seek to keep light-skinned folks as the primary drivers of human innovation.  It is a self-serving load of shit.  Any new finds that corroborate the African presence in the Americas are either ignored, hidden, or portrayed in such a light as to seem unimportant.  Even in the very first voyages of Columbus and his Spanish mercenaries, the natives would talk of dark-skinned visitors from the “morning,” (the East, where the Sun rises).  In Central America and the coast of South America, the native peoples talked of villages of dark-skinned men that came by boat over the water.

Even today, much of the world lives under the lie that the ancient Egyptians were not Black Africans, but light-skinned people.  The (white) world cannot accept that the original Egyptians, the builders of the great Pyramids, the creators of a religion and culture that lasted for millennia, were dark-skinned, Negro Africans.  The fact that Nubia, and Nubian kings, ruled over what is now Egypt is forgotten, or relegated to a mere happenstance.  The empire of Mali, on the west of Africa, was, in medieval times, larger, more prosperous, and far more advanced in every way than the contemporary Holy Roman Empire.  They had the resources, capabilities, and knowledge to sail around all of Africa, the Mediterranean, and, as Ivan Van Sertima has shown, all the way to the New World.  This is something to celebrate alongside all other great human achievements, but racism and prejudice prevents us from doing so.  What a shame.  I highly recommend this book.

(This book is available for download here: https://afrikin.org/books/Ivan-Van-Sertima-They-Came-Before-Columbus.pdf )