Toward the front of the headquarters of the National Action Network in Harlem there is a chair—no a throne—that was placed there for the venerable Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan. Every Saturday for more than a decade Dr. Ben, as he was affectionately and internationally known, would arrive there and take his place as part of the audience, primarily to hear the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“Dr. Ben came each week knowing I was going to preach about Jesus,” Sharpton said last Saturday during NAN’s action rally. “He told me he came despite what I believed often saying ‘I raised that boy, but he went off on some other things.’ He came to our rallies because he had a habit of being around Black people.”
Sharpton said that chair, which no one is allowed to sit in, now with only a picture of Dr. Ben in the seat, “will be there as long as this organization exists. He taught us more about our history and culture than any other Black scholar.”
Dr. Ben, as he was universally and affectionately known, was 96 or 97, depending on the sources.
A week after his death last Thursday, a multitude of associates, colleagues, students and well-wishers have extended their condolences, shared their grief and sorrow, and voiced their appreciation for his many years of scholarship, particularly to Kemetic studies or Egyptology. Among his many books is Africa: The Mother of Western Civilization and Black Man of the Nile, both currently in print by Black Classic Press.
But capturing the essence of Dr. Ben whose life stretched across nearly a century, more than matching the reach and influence of his scholarship, is not easy. And perhaps the best way to present some idea of his majesty and what he has meant to a community of teachers, scholars, and students, we allow him here to speak for himself from a portion of his vast library of essays, lectures, and interviews.
It is perplexing to know that so few researchers and scholars in the field of ancient studies have not cited his work. Even so, his reputation was best known and respected among those who attended his lectures whether in the classroom or in the streets. Fortunately, from the London lectures he conducted with Dr. Clarke in 1986, collected in New Dimensions in African History (Africa World Press), we can begin tracing his biographical trail, one that begins in a literary way in 1938.
“In 1938 I published my first book on Africa,” he answered a questioner who was interested to know what he had done to alleviate some of the stresses Blacks had endured under colonialism. “Since 1938 I’ve published thirty-two books on Africa, and I write them in such a way that even a seventh-grader should be able to read them. I also have fourteen other manuscripts and an encyclopedia of seven volumes. I established my own publishing company. We send books to jails, hospitals and certain places, free to African-Americans, African, and African-Caribbean prisoners.”
Dr. Ben then elaborated on a bit of his teaching at that time. “I teach right now at a school called Malcolm-King College and for the last eighteen years consecutively on a voluntary basis every Thursday night in the Harlem community. I go to Head Start Programs in eight public schools, at no charge, to lecture very young brothers and sisters. I frequent a place called Pan-Pan Restaurant, near the corner of W. 135th Street where I live….If you ask me personally, I was a civil engineer. I worked for many projects and for many people without charge; and as a lawyer I have taken numerous cases when I was a legal practitioner for free. I have trained my children so that one of my daughters works as a physician in a clinic only two days a week for her own pocket, and then four days for the people of Puerto Rico, with one day free.”
When Dr. Ben was asked about the slave trade, he used that as an opportunity to expound on his own lineage. “My father was married to my mother after his first wife died,” he began. “My grandfather, my father’s father, had sixty-three children with eleven wives. So I know what polygamy is against promiscuity….I have nine biological daughters, three sons and eight adopted daughters, making a total of twenty children. I wish I could get more, because I’m an African, and I have no qualms about having a little tiny minuscule family called the modern family. I told my daughters there is nothing wrong with polygamy. You want to marry a man with five wives, okay, but you must be a wife by the marriage tradition of the land.
“There are reasons why I say I’ve got to have an African woman,” he continued, “I’ve got to have somebody who understands me culturally. Because the European men keep their wives as a piece of furniture in the house, and she’s got to rebel against him, as she is competing against tennis balls, golf balls and skiing down the Alps. The African woman has always had to work and there is no fear of the African woman taking over her man. They will never do that. They are always ahead of the men; and we want them there.”
On the question of love and respect, Dr. Ben said, “I don’t care if my woman doesn’t love me as long as she respects me. Respect is higher than love. Love is an animalistic thing which you have no control of. I must live the life before I can preach it. I have been married to an ex-Roman Catholic nun, a Black woman, and all the Jewish people on my side also said it couldn’t survive, and yet we have been married for thirty-nine years because I respect her. I have so much time to praise and worship Black women, to kneel down and thank the heavens they are here!”
And while he kneels in reverence to Black women we extend our praise and gratitude for his contribution, which, as Sharpton observed, “we can all make, no matter our differences.”
Dr. Ben’s wake and viewing is Thursday, April 9, 4-8pm and funeral services are Friday, April 10 beginning at 9:30am, both at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on 138th Street near Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd.