Drumming for Dr. Ben

At his funeral, a scholar of African Studies gets a celebratory sendoff.

A woman dances in the street.

A woman dances in the street at the funeral for Yosef Ben-Jochannan (Natasha Payés/ NY City Lens).

Fingers and palms pounded on djembe drums; a kalabash, a round, hand-held instrument with shells, rattled in the background. As people exited the Abyssinian Baptist Church in West Harlem on April 10, men and women, young and old spilled into the street and danced to the rhythmic sounds coming from African instruments. It looked as if a block party had occurred spontaneously on a misty Friday afternoon, but in fact it was the funeral service for Yosef Ben-Jochannan, also known as Dr. Ben.

In some traditional African religions, death does not exist, only reincarnation. Therefore, dancing and drumming is appropriate at a funeral. Ben-Jochannan, an autodidact, was a historian and scholar of African studies who helped a lot of Black Americans understand and appreciate their heritage. He, along with other scholars and political activists, including John Henrik Clarke and Marcus Garvey, devoted his life to documenting African history and educating people of African descent about their roots. Ben-Jochannan’s teachings were incredibly influential and sought-after by many African Americans, especially to those growing up in the Jim Crow era—a period in which discrimination against African Americans was considered lawful.

It did not matter to the hundreds of people who stood in a line that snaked two city blocks whether or not Ben-Jochannan received his doctorate or his bachelor’s degree from an actual university, something that The New York Times questioned in a recent article titled, “Contested Legacy of Dr. Ben, a Father of African Studies.” Ben-Jochannan claimed to have earned degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, but there are no records of his attendance at either school, the Times reported. But to his supporters,  Ben-Jochannan’s legacy outweighs the value of any diploma.

“Not having any degrees is irrelevant; it doesn’t define anyone,” said Avery White, 46. She said she knew Ben-Jochannan for 30 years and often visited him when he lived at the Bay Park Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Bronx. “In the past, I could only go back four generations if I wanted to trace my roots, but Dr. Ben showed us that our history goes beyond that,” said White. “It’s a misconception to believe slavery was the start of African history.”

Alazar Deas, who grew up in Charleston, N.C. during the Jim Crow era, said Ben-Jochannan gave him a new life. “After hearing, ‘Nigga you ain’t nothing’ and ‘Do what you’re told to do,’ by teachers and other people for so many years, Dr. Ben was a form of therapy,” said Deas, 64. “He showed me who I was as a man.”

“Dr. Ben made so much sense. He was the one who converted me Garveyism,” said Rosalind McLymont. “Because of his books and influence, I moved to Africa.” Garveyism is based on the ideology of Marcus Garvey, a Black Nationalist who gained popularity in the early 20th century. Garvey promoted the idea of unification of black people and repatriation to Africa.

Even after pallbearers lifted Ben-Jochannan’s casket into a white hearse, long after the motorcade departed and the Abyssinian staff closed its gates, dozens of people continued to celebrate Ben-Jochannan’s legacy though dance and song in the middle of the street. Ben-Jochannan died on March 19 at age 96.

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