Sankofa International Academy in Brooklyn was recently packed with guests eager to pay homage to one of our greatest African historians ever – the iconic Dr. Ben-Jochannan.
“Dr. Ben,” as he is affectionately called, has a unique background. He was born to a Black Puerto Rican Jewish mother and a Black Ethiopian father on December 31, 1918 in Gonder, Ethiopia. Dr. Ben has lived in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, and in 1939 earned engineering and anthropology degrees after being educated in Puerto Rico, Brasil, Cuba and Spain. He received his doctoral degrees in cultural anthropology and Moorish History from the University of Havana, Cuba and the University of Barcelona, Spain.
Even those well acquainted with Dr. Ben’s illustrious career, may not be aware that in addition to being recognized as one of the world’s greatest Egyptologist, Dr. Ben is fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Ge’ez, and Arabic. Ge’ez is a liturgical language only used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
For many though, the most precious and memorable gift to African heritage are the tours began in 1946 by Dr. Ben to Egypt to see ancient African monuments.
While waiting for Dr. Ben’s arrival, Minister Clemson Brown (a noted historian and videographer), provided the guests with a film he produced on a trip Dr. Ben and his entourage took to Ethiopia in 1982. The film began with an introduction of Dr. Ben’s birth, education and teaching career at Cornell University. He discussed the Blue and White Nile Rivers and how African people created the number system we use today. He stated that Africa is the birth place of civilization. Dr. Ben’s wealth of knowledge and analytical abilities held his audience in rapt attention.
After the film ended, Sankofa’s principal, Ollie McClean, introduced Juanita Thomas who had the unfortunate task of informing the group that Dr. Ben would not be able to attend that afternoon’s affair honoring him. She said there was a problem with his home attendant not willing to accompany Dr. Ben to Brooklyn. The guests then enjoyed the lunch they had hoped to share with Dr. Ben.
At this point, the Sankofa students, adorned in traditional African dress, led the guests in “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. During lunch, several guests suggested that if Dr. Ben couldn’t come to us, we should go to him. We packed a hefty lunch, including dessert, and headed up to Harlem. A total of 10 guests (including 3 children) proceeded by subway and cars to a surprise celebration for our guest we intended to honor on that day. Our entourage included Christian and Aaron Fletcher, Richlyn Fletcher, Juanita Thomas, Honesti Gittens, Seydou Njoya, Carvel Gray, Nana Ama Tanks, Jewel Allison and yours truly.
In the floor-to-ceiling book lined living room, we found Dr. Ben seated on his rich leather sofa. He was pleasantly surprised and genuinely pleased to receive so many unexpected guests. His disappointment at having missed that morning’s ceremony, rapidly dissipated . Those of us who had never met Dr. Ben introduced ourselves. A call was placed to inform Ollie McClean that we were in Dr. Ben’s Lenox Terrace apartment. We sat in a semi-circle around the 93-year-old Dr., and Nana Ama shared the photos taken earlier at the ceremony honoring him. The conversation then turned to the fact that Dr. Ben doesn’t have a working land phone. The investigators discovered that the line was operative, but the telephone itself was not. After the charges for service not received have been resolved, a credit will be requested for Dr. Ben. To assure us that he was o.k., Dr. Ben pulled out his cell phone to show us that he had some means to contact the outside world.
After some difficulty, the Sankofa children, with the assistance of Mr. Seydou Njoya, were able to put on the video seen previously at the ceremony in Brooklyn of Dr. Ben in Ethiopia. He recognized the occasion and made timely comments.
Next came the gift giving portion of our visit. Dr. Ben received a handsome black & white scarf, a warm sweater and a handcrafted pillow which opened up into a full-size blanket. The handcrafted pillow was given by Sister Carolyn Alexander, who teaches quilting at Sankofa. Sister Carolyn traveled in l980 to Egypt with Dr. Ben, and was also at the ceremony earlier that day. Jewel Allison presented Dr. Ben with a hand-knitted scarf with cowie beads at one end and an ankh (represents life, immortality, balance, zest, joy of life and energy) at the other, plus an autographed copy of her book of poetry “Stealing Peace“.
Towards the end of our visit, we assured Dr. Ben that we would be back – maybe not all of us at the same time – but we would return soon to spend more time with him. It was a spontaneous, truly unique and wonderful experience having been in the presence of this revered giant scholar of African history.