The faded plaque to the right of the door said “Jochannan, Yosef B.,” but visitors to this nursing home on the northern edge of the Bronx knew the frail 96-year-old inside by another name: Dr. Ben.
As a sign of respect, many would also bend down on one knee.
The room was covered in mementos from a life spent between continents, weaving together the threads of the African diaspora: honors and awards, photos of Egyptian statues, kente cloth, a mug decorated with hieroglyphs and piles of letters from admirers and acolytes.
Yosef Alfredo Antonio Ben-Jochannan seemed unaware of the shrine that had accumulated around him. His eyes were barely open. He sat hunched in his wheelchair, dressed in baggy pants, a faded purple sweatshirt and a kufi.
One of his daughters held his hand; a granddaughter showed him photos of her own child on a cellphone.
Though he now had difficulty speaking, exhausted by even the smallest effort, Mr. Ben-Jochannan was once a powerful orator and a prolific author, one of the most vital and radical Afrocentric voices of his generation.
And he may have been the last. On March 19, Mr. Ben-Jochannan died, leaving behind 13 children from three marriages and a generation of intellectuals and activists who looked to him for guidance.
His life spanned eras. When Mr. Ben-Jochannan was born, Africa was largely under colonial rule, the Voting Rights Act was a half-century away and the lynching of black Americans was at its peak.
To some, Mr. Ben-Jochannan was a sage, a self-taught scholar who dedicated his life to uncovering the suppressed history of a people, challenging narratives that had written Africa out of world history.
In the 1960s, Mr. Ben-Jochannan emerged as prominent figure in Harlem, pushing his anticolonial message to its limit, claiming that the very foundations of Western civilization, including Greek philosophy, Judaism and Christianity, were African in origin. He regularly lectured to crowded auditoriums; he was a disciple of Marcus Garvey and a confidant of Malcolm X, and he appeared on stages with Amiri Baraka, Al Sharpton, James Brown and Louis Farrakhan.
“He is a kind of godfather to all of us in African and Afro-American studies,” Cornel West, the author and activist, said. “I salute him. I was blessed to study at his feet.”
And yet to others Mr. Ben-Jochannan was an impostor and a historical revisionist. The Anti-Defamation League, troubled by books of his with titles like “We the Black Jews: Witness to the ‘White Jewish Race’ Myth,” stopped just short of calling him an anti-Semite.
His work, the group once wrote, was “blatantly inaccurate” and “unworthy of any educational institution.”
But Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s legacy is not confined to academic debate. As part of his enterprise, he took thousands of black Americans on tours of the Nile Valley, to visit the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt, where he always took special care to point out the faces on statues and shapes of the figures in hieroglyphs.
Asked in the weeks before his death what drove him to make these repeated pilgrimages to Egypt, Mr. Ben-Jochannan cleared his throat and answered very slowly. “I wanted people to see their faces were the same,” he said.
Mr. Ben-Jochannan was born, he claimed, in Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother (herself from Yemeni Jewish stock). But there is little evidence for that other than his own word; some peers, and even a family member, have privately expressed doubts.
Most accounts agree that wherever he was born, Mr. Ben-Jochannan was raised in the Caribbean and moved to New York City around 1940.
Harlem at that time was swirling with various strains of black nationalism in the wake of Mr. Garvey’s pan-Africanist movement. This is where Mr. Ben-Jochannan found his voice, holding impromptu lectures in city squares and talks at community centers. He later began teaching at Harlem Prep, an experimental school that opened in 1967, and at Malcolm-King: Harlem College Extension, a two-year liberal arts school, in the 1970s and ’80s.
Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s self-published books — around 20 volumes in total, with titles like “Africa: Mother of Western Civilization” and “Black Man of the Nile and His Family” — were collaged with hieroglyphs and hand-drawn maps. Ignored by academia, they became staples in Afrocentric libraries.
“I consider Dr. Ben the greatest of the self-trained historians,” said Paul Coates, founder of Black Classics Press, who would later work as Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s publisher. “There’s still no one like him.”
Having already established a reputation among African-Americans, in 1973 Mr. Ben-Jochannan joined Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center (at the time only four years old), in Ithaca, N.Y., as a visiting professor.
He was a distinguished figure at the Africana Center, eventually becoming an adjunct over his 15-year affiliation with Cornell. A painted portrait of Mr. Ben-Jochannan still hangs at the school.
During that period, Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s 15-day trips to Egypt, billed as “Dr. Ben’s Alkebu-Lan Educational Tours,” using what he said was an ancient name for Africa, were more popular than ever. They typically ran three times a summer, shuttling as many as 200 people to Africa per season. In 1987, one ticket, all expenses paid, was $1,545.
“I was always taught that the ancient Egyptians were Caucasian,” saidAnthony T. Browder, who traveled with Mr. Ben-Jochannan in the 1980s. But in southern Egypt, Mr. Browder saw a statue of a pharaoh that left him speechless. “The face is African,” said Mr. Browder, who is the director of the IKG Cultural Resource Center, an organization devoted to the “rediscovery and application” of ancient African history. “It was mind-blowing, evidence of African greatness, thousands of years before our ancestors were enslaved.”
In accounts of his own life, some of Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s embellishments seemed to serve a larger purpose: gesturing to a distant past, establishing a grand narrative and creating a nearly mythic public persona. Others appear to be mere falsehoods or plain deceit.
Documents from Malcolm-King College and Cornell show Mr. Ben-Jochannan holding a doctorate from Cambridge University in England; catalogs from Malcolm-King College list him holding two master’s from Cambridge. According to Fred Lewsey, a communications officer at Cambridge, however, the school has no record of his ever attending, let alone earning any degree. Similarly, the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, where he also said he had studied, has no records of his enrollment.
It’s not clear whether employers had ever looked into Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s qualifications.
“People condemn me for not being an intellectual of the Ph.D. type,” Mr. Ben-Jochannan once said, reacting to questions later raised about his résumé. While he used the “white man’s credential” to go “certain places,” Mr. Ben-Jochannan said, he refused to “let the white man certify” his work.
Though beyond reproach to most acolytes, Mr. Ben-Jochannan was challenged publicly by classical scholars like Mary Lefkowitz, now a retired professor at Wellesley College. While Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s work was rooted in a desire to undo the damage done by colonial historians, Ms. Lefkowitz said, he was simply offering pseudohistory as an alternative.
“It’s a myth of conspiracy: ‘White people have taken away history and hidden the truth,’ ” Ms. Lefkowitz said. “But it’s all more complicated than that.”
Mr. Ben-Jochannan seemed unfazed by criticism.
“I don’t care whether white colleagues appreciate me as a historian or not,” he wrote once. “I’m writing for the African person all around the world.”
In the next decades, as most of his peers died, Mr. Ben-Jochannan emerged as the elder statesman of Afrocentrism. But like any vanguard, he may have been a victim of his own success, eclipsed by the younger intellectuals he influenced.
“That entire generation of self-trained historians really gave me my first sense of skepticism,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an editor at The Atlantic, and the son of Paul Coates, Mr. Ben-Jochannan’s publisher, wrote in an email.
“What people like Dr. Ben were saying was, ‘History is not this objective thing that exists outside of politics,’ ” Mr. Coates wrote. “ ‘It exists well within politics, and part of its job has been to position black people in a place of use for white people.’ And that notion of skepticism goes with me in all of my work. It runs through everything I do.”
Yosef Alfredo Antonio ben-Jochannan (/ /; December 31, 1918 – March 19, 2015), also known as Dr. Ben, was an American writer and historian. He is considered to have been one of the nation's more notable Afrocentric scholars.
Early life and education
Ben-Jochannan's background is uncertain. He asserted that he was born in Ethiopia to a Puerto Rican mother and an Ethiopian father. According to Tudor Parfitt, Ben-Jochannan was likely to have been of Puerto Rican origin.
According to some sources, he was educated in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Cuba, and Spain, earning degrees in engineering and anthropology.[unreliable source?] In 1938, he is said to have earned a BS in Civil Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico; this is disputed. He stated that in 1939 he earned a Master's degree in Architectural Engineering from the University of Havana, Cuba. and then doctoral degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Moorish History from the University of Havana and the University of Barcelona, Spain.
In a New York Times article published after Ben-Jochannan's death it was reported that "Documents from Malcolm-King College and Cornell show Mr. Ben-Jochannan holding a doctorate from Cambridge University in England; catalogs from Malcolm-King College list him holding two master’s from Cambridge. According to Fred Lewsey, a communications officer at Cambridge, however, the school has no record of his ever attending, let alone earning any degree. Similarly, the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, where he also said he had studied, has no records of his enrollment."
Career and later life
Ben-Jochannan immigrated to the United States in the early 1940s. He worked as a draftsman and continued his studies. He stated that in 1945, he was appointed chairman of the African Studies Committee at the headquarters of the newly founded UNESCO, a position from which he reportedly stepped down in 1970. In 1950, Ben-Jochannan began teaching Egyptology at Malcolm King College, and subsequently at City College in New York City. From 1976 to 1987, he was an adjunct professor at Cornell University.
Ben-Jochannan was the author of 49 books, primarily on ancient Nile Valley civilizations and their impact on Western cultures.[dead link]In his writings, he asserts that the original Jews were from Ethiopia and were Black Africans, while the white Jews later adopted the Jewish faith and its customs.
Ben-Jochannan made a number of appearances on Gil Noble's WABC-TV weekly public affairs series Like It Is.
In 2002, Ben-Jochannan donated his personal library of more than 35,000 volumes, manuscripts and ancient scrolls to the Nation of Islam.
In the years preceding his death Ben-Jochannan lived in Harlem, New York City.
Ben-Jochannan has been criticized for allegedly distorting history and promoting Black supremacy. In February 1993, Wellesley College European classics professor Mary Lefkowitz publicly confronted Ben-Jochannan about his teachings. Ben-Jochannan taught that Aristotle visited the Library of Alexandria. During the question and answer session following the lecture, Lefkowitz asked ben-Jochannan, "How would that have been possible, when the library was not built until after his death?" Lefkowitz stated that "Dr. ben-Jochannan was unable to answer the question, and said that he resented the tone of the inquiry." Lefkowitz writes that ben-Jochannan proceeded to tell those present that they "could and should believe what black instructors told" them and that "although they might think that Jews were all 'hook-nosed and sallow faced,' there were other Jews who looked like himself."
African-American professor Clarence E. Walker wrote that Ben-Jochannan not only confused Cleopatra VII with her daughter Cleopatra VIII and stated she was black, but also wrote that “Cleopatra VIII committed suicide after being discovered in a plot with Marc Antonio [Mark Anthony] to murder Julius Caesar.”
- African Origins of Major Western Religions, 1991. ISBN 978-0933121294
- We the Black Jews, 1993, ISBN 9780933121409
- Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Black Classic Press, 1989. ISBN 9780933121263
- Africa: Mother of Western Civilization. ISBN 9780933121256
- New Dimensions in African History
- The Myth of Exodus and Genesis and the Exclusion of Their African Origins
- Abu Simbel to Ghizeh: A Guide Book and Manual
- Cultural Genocide in the Black and African Studies Curriculum. New York, 1972. OCLC 798725