An Open Letter to The Urban Review
Arecent publication in The Urban Review journal has come to our attention. The journal presents itself as one that deals with “Issues and Ideas in Education,” so it was surprising to see their publication of the article entitled, “Early Pioneers of the Americas: The Role of the Olmecs in Urban Education and Social Studies Curriculum’’ by Greg Wiggan, Annette Teasdell, Marcia J. Watson‑Vandiver, and Sheikia Talley‑Matthews. In their article, Wiggan et al peddle the long discredited notion that the Olmec were not indigenous Americans, but rather that they were black Africans who traversed the Atlantic Ocean millennia before Christopher Columbus. There are variations on the hypothesis, but the general idea is that Africans established (or helped establish) one of the oldest major civilizations in the Americas, the Olmec, which scholars credit as being a major inspiration for the Mesoamerican Indigenous cultures that followed. What we find surprising is that a publication that purports to be educational would publish an article that advocates the introduction of “Black Olmec” curriculum in schools.
Teaching the baseles and erroneous claim that the Olmec were black Africans is just as colonialist as the Eurocentric model that Afrocentrists rail against. Such claims regarding the Olmec are the result of outdated racial worldviews held by early European writers, many of whom never set foot in the Americas, combined with the Afrocentric ramblings of pseudoscholars such as Ivan Van Sertima and Clyde Winters, none of who are Mesoamerican specialists. The idea of “Black Olmecs” is rooted in pseudohistorical revisionism and is not accepted by legitimate Mesoamerican scholars. It should be made clear that no archaeological, faunal, floral, genetic, or historical evidence exists to support the myth of “Black Olmecs.” In fact, scholars such as Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Warren Barbour, and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano have published extensive research refuting Van Sertima and the myth of “Black Olmecs.”
Proponents of this myth base their conclusions on superficial interpretations of the famous Olmec heads of Veracruz. These statues, they claim, bear physiognomic resemblance to Africans solely based on their broad noses and thick lips. The fact that the statues also resemble Mexico’s Indigenous people (along with the fact that broad noses and thick lips are not solely black African characteristics) is simply ignored. If these assertions were being made in the reverse by white authors about black African culture, those people would rightfully be castigated for their racist interpretations. Somehow, when it comes to Native Americans, especially if they are ancient and mysterious enough, it is okay to make outlandish claims. The long running pseudohistorical television program about ancient aliens and ancient peoples is in this same vein.
Somehow, when it comes to Native Americans, especially if they are ancient and mysterious enough, it is okay to make outlandish claims.
Sadly, with this proposition, what the adherents of this unfounded thesis assert is that Indigenous peoples of the Americas received their foundational culture from black Africans, a belief that effectively robs Native Americans of their cultural patrimony. In fact, most of what Wiggan et al state in their piece does not support their claim, which they themselves admit is mostly “suggestive.” That is not how positive claims work; you must have actual facts and not just quotes from secondary sources posing as facts in order to make your case. The entire article is riddled with questionable “sources” that the authors lean on as primary evidence; however, upon closer examination, the cited “evidence” are actually quotes from secondary sources that are misinterpreted, noted as suggestive, or have been revealed to be incorrect.
It would take an article length paper to properly demonstrate the numerous errors made by Wiggan et al but let us explore at least one — the extensive use of secondary sources as primary sources. For example, here the authors quote Van Sertima: “[The] African presence in the Olmec world demonstrated that the African first entered the Western Hemisphere not as chattels, not as property, not as merchandise, not as enslaved people, but as masters in control of their own destinies” (pg 4). They follow that quote with this statement: “In spite of the above evidence, education and curriculum development literature are generally silent on the Olmecs” (pg 5). What evidence are they referring to; that Van Sertima made a claim linking Africans to Olmecs? It seems extremely odd to have to say this about an article published in a (peer-reviewed?) journal, but opinions are not facts and therefore not evidence. Simply quoting the opinions of another author does not make that a supporting fact. You must follow up with actual evidence, and that is a key missing element in this entire piece.
Now let us consider some of their sources. The authors that Wiggan et al chose to rely on are highly questionable. For instance, Ivan Van Sertima (as mentioned above) was soundly refuted in the 1990s by Montellano et al. Sertima’s predecessor, Harold G. Lawrence — who kickstarted the modern iteration of the Black Olmec hypothesis — had no advanced training in archeology or history, and in fact, his influential piece, “African explorers of the New World” (1962, The Crisis) introduces him as belonging to a group from Detroit, Michigan called The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Apparently that is enough to make him a credible source on the prehistory of Native Americans. And finally, they cite Anu M’Bantu, a British-born photo-journalist who also does not have advanced training in Mesoamerican Indigenous societies. M’Bantu has written several self-published books with curious titles, such as The Ancient Black Hebrews and Arabs (2013) and The Black Kings of Europe (2019). Sources can either make or break a thesis, and the ones in question here are the kind that usually get flagged during peer-review.
We certainly agree that the history and legacy of African peoples in the Americas is still not sufficiently taught in schools, but we do children a disservice by advancing opinions as “facts.” Promoting the idea that the Olmec were black is more than simply poor scholarship, it is an erasure of the accomplishments of Indigenous Mexicans. Africa and Mexico are both home to fascinating civilizations, each with their own advancements in technology, linguistics, agriculture, and science. When we embrace the pseudohistory of “Black Olmecs,” we trivialize and marginalize the legacies of both Africans and Indigenous Mexicans.
Africa and Mexico are both home to fascinating civilizations, each with their own advancements in technology, linguistics, agriculture, and science. When we embrace the pseudohistory of “Black Olmecs,” we trivialize and marginalize the legacies of both Africans and Indigenous Mexicans.
Thus, in light of this major oversight, we ask that the The Urban Review journal retract the article by Wiggan et al and discontinue its promotion of “Black Olmecs.” As long-time ethnic studies researchers and educators ourselves, we would prefer to see accurate and far more meaningful scholarship that explores better ways of advancing education among urban youth. Certainly, we can recognize the heritage of Africans and African Americans — as well as that of Afro-Mexicans — without promoting a distorted, colonialist, and fanciful version of history. In the words of Van Sertima himself: “You cannot really conceive how insulting it is to Native Americans to be told they were discovered” (pg 21). We agree with Sertima on that point, but we would further add that it is just as equally insulting to be told that someone else gave your ancestors their culture. You cannot counter colonialist thought with colonialist pedagogy.
Kurly Tlapoyawa, Supervisory Archaeologist
Ruben A. Arellano (Tlakatekatl), History Ph.D.
The Chimalli Institute of Mesoamerican Arts