An appreciation: Dr. Ben, legendary Egypt scholar, dean of Harlem Street University

by Todd Steven Burroughs

Yosef Alfredo Antonio ben-Jochannan, known to the African world as “Dr. Ben,” believed that education belonged to any member of his race who wanted it.

Perhaps that was because of the 20th century tradition of ad-hoc “street universities,” with step-ladder orators as varied as Malcolm X and “Porkchop” Davis, a tradition he understood. Perhaps it was because of the racism he experienced as a young Black man studying engineering.

Dr. Ben

Or perhaps it was because he believed that if his people knew their collective root, their ancient greatness, they would fight for their freedom and achieve it.

Dr. Ben, one of the founding scholars and lecturers in what is now known as Africana Studies, died last week after a long illness. He was 96.

Active for at least 50 years, his death represents another milestone in the slow passing of politically and culturally Black, pre-gentrified Harlem, a fabled place that not only existed in books on Marcus Garvey or the Harlem Renaissance but in reality: the capital of Black (Nationalist) America, where fiery, independent scholars taught classical African history in community meetings and on the local airwaves, shaping those lectures into swords against white supremacy.

Dr. Ben existed and thrived in what could be called The Harlem Century – the time between the too-brief era of the great scholar-activist Hubert Henry Harrison, the street-corner orator known as “The Black Socrates” who publicly introduced Marcus Garvey to its people, and now, the dawning of a new Harlem.

Dr. Ben, one of the founding scholars and lecturers in what is now known as Africana Studies, died last week after a long illness. He was 96.

The man known as Dr. Ben joined his ancestors on March 19, 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.

“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 City College of New York and one of ben-Jochannan’s unofficial aides. “We will be raising monies to make his celebration eloquent and we will message this and the arrangements.”

Jeffries and Professor James Small, another pioneering Africana Studies historian, had been the spokespeople for the ben-Jochannan family and its YouTube public face as his condition worsened. They had updated admirers during the month while maintaining their vigil outside the specialized care unit in the Bay Park Nursing Home in the Bronx, where ben-Jochannan spent his final years.

New York City Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, D-Brooklyn, co-founding member of the council’s Progressive Caucus and a member of the body’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, said in a statement that Dr. Ben’s “extensive research on Egypt, Black culture and history gained him notoriety not just among educators but people of color across the world.

Dr. Ben believed that education belonged to any member of his race who wanted it.

“As Dr. Ben once said, ‘Trust is a continuous examination, and fact … always supersedes belief.’ It’s my hope that all New Yorkers remember his prolific, eye-opening legacy and reflect on his thorough work for Afrikan people. We can take solace knowing that he did so much while here and has now joined the ancestors.”

“So much” is an understatement. Dr. Ben 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.

John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Ben, Chancellor Williams
John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Ben, Chancellor Williams

Dr. Ben was Africana Studies way before it was in vogue. He taught at City College and Malcolm-King: Harlem College Extension from the 1950s through the 1970s. In 1976, during the end of the birth of Africana Studies as a formal academic discipline in American universities, he was given an adjunct appointment in the Africana Studies department of Cornell University, where he taught for several years.

He sponsored educational tours to the center of the ancient Black world – Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia – for at least three decades. And there and everywhere, the one fact he stressed – 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 – made him distinctive and beloved in Black radical circles and controversial in white communities.

Among those who followed the “street universities” in Black communities during the 20th century, ben-Jochannan was known as the hardcore, blunt face of African-centered thought to the sometimes more gentle public façade of his longtime friend and oftentimes lecturing partner, John Henrik Clarke.

Both taught members of the Harlem community through ben-Jochannan’s “First World Alliance” lecture series, which operated on weekends from 1977 through the 1990s. The series, which started in ben-Jochannan’s home, was moved to a local church when it grew in popularity.

Dr. Ben was Africana Studies way before it was in vogue.

On the street, in community meetings, in speeches and in articles in Black newspapers and magazines, Dr. Ben was often named in the same breath as Clarke, his fellow historian. But the staunch race-first Garveyite claimed he had strong ideological differences with his longtime broad-based African-centered leftist friend, who died in 1998.

Like Clarke, ben-Jochannan became well known in the New York metropolitan area in the late 20th century because of his many decades of frequent television and radio appearances on 1190 WLIB-AM, then a local Black news-talk radio station, and WABC-TV’s Black public-affairs mainstay, “Like It Is.” He became nationally known via “Nighttalk with Bob Law,” National Black Network’s weeknight public affairs radio program. Like Dr. Ben and Clarke, these forums are either gone or changed in 2015.

Runoko Rashidi and Dr. Ben
Runoko Rashidi and Dr. Ben

Everything about Dr. Ben was worldly, with a tinge of the ancient. The pioneering Egyptologist was born in 1918 in Ethiopia. Ben-Jochannan moved to the United States in 1940, after going to school in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and universities in Puerto Rico and Havana. He received his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Havana.

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 ones included “African Origins of Major Western Religions,” “The Black Man and The Nile and His Family” and “We, the Black Jews: Witness to the ‘White Jewish Race’ Myth, Volumes I and II.”

He self-published many of his works, but many eventually got picked up by Black Classic Press, a Baltimore-based independent book publisher of Black-oriented major nonfiction books. These works became underground classics in Black-consciousness settings from the waning days of the Black Power Movement in the late 1970s until today.

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 or the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, in 2002 ben-Jochannan donated his personal library – an estimated 35,000 books, ancient scrolls and manuscripts – to the Nation of Islam.

His long love affair with Harlem was not without hardship. He was assaulted on a Harlem street in 2003, an incident that made national news in Black America. His son Nnandi was shot and killed in Harlem the following year.

He is survived by two daughters, Ruth and Naomi Johannes, and other family members.

Wake and funeral arrangements

Services for Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan are as follows:

  • The wake will be held Thursday, April 9, 4-9 p.m., at Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 W. 138th St., between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X Boulevards, New York, NY 10030, 212-862-7474.
  • The funeral service is Friday, April 10, 9:30-12:30 p.m., at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
  • Burial will be in Ferncliff Cemetery, 280 Secor Rd., Ardslay, NY 10530.

Cards and donations should be sent to Dr. Ben’s daughter, Ms. Ruth Johannes, 955 Walton Ave., Suite 2G, Bronx NY 10452.

Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Hyattsville, Md., is the author of “Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks,” an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark, N.J., 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 and Today.” He can be reached at toddpanther@gmail.com