Clarke, John Henrik 1915–1998
John Henrik Clarke 1915–1998
In the course of his long and varied academic career, John Henrik Clarke made tremendous contributions to the disciplines of African and African American studies. For more than six decades, he lectured on Black history all over the world, from community centers in Harlem to universities in Africa. He wrote six books and edited or contributed to seventeen others. He helped found several important black quarterly publications, frequently composed scholarly articles and pamphlets, and participated in several television productions. In addition to his academic work, Clarke also wrote poetry and fiction, publishing more than fifty short stories during his lifetime.
As an expert on African and African American history, Clarke dedicated his life to countering widely-held stereotypes and misconceptions. “Until quite recently, it was rather generally assumed, even among well-educated persons in the West, that the African continent was a great expanse of land, mostly jungle, inhabited by savages and fierce beasts,” Clarke wrote in African People in World History “It was not thought of as an area where great civilizations could have existed.”
In 1969, Clarke joined the faculty of Hunter College, City University of New York, where he established the department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies. Amazingly, he managed to accomplish this with very little formal education himself. “If it is unusual to become a full college professor without benefit of a high school diploma, let alone a PhD, nobody said Professor Clarke wasn’t an academic original,” Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in Clarke’s obituary in the New York Times. Clarke never regretted his unorthodox career path, however. “[A]s a scholar devoted to redresssing what he saw as a systematic and racist suppression and distortion of African history by traditional scholars, he said he had not missed all that much,” by not earning a college degree, Thomas wrote.
John Henrik Clarke was born on January 1, 1915, in Union Springs, Alabama; his father was a sharecropper, his mother a laundrywoman. When he was four years old, the family farm was severely damaged by a storm, and Clarke’s father decided to move the family to Columbus, Georgia, a mill town. Clarke’s mother died when he was a young child, and his father supported the family by working as a farmer, as well as a fire tender at the brickyards. In the essay “A Search for Identity,” published in New Dimensions in African History, Clarke later recalled, “… my father was a brooding, landless sharecropper, always wanting to own his own land….Ultimately the pursuit of this dream killed him.”
In Columbus, Clarke attended country schools, becoming the first in a family of nine children to learn to read. “Because I had learned to read early, great things were
At a Glance…
Born John HenrikClarke, Union Springs, Alabama, January 1, 1915; died July 16, 1998; married Sybil Williams Clarke (second marriage); two children from first marriage; Nzingha Marie Clarke (daughter) and Sonni Kojo Clarke (son). Education: Studied at New York University and Columbia University; People’s College, Malverne, Long Island, teaching license; Pacific Western University (nonaccredited), Los Angeles, PhD.
Career: Teacher of African and African American history in Harlem community centers, 1940s; lecturer, New School for Social Research, 1956-58; visiting lecturer, University of Ibadan, University of Chana and other institutions in Africa, 1958-59; director, Heritage Teaching Program for the Harlem Youth-Associated Community Teams (Haryou-Act), 1964-69; lecturer, associate professor, full professor, Hunter College, City University of New York, 1969-85; professor emeritus, 1985-98.
Selected writings: Author, Rebellion in Rhyme: The Early Poetry of John Henrik Clarke; African People at the Crossroads: Notes for an African World Revolution; William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968); New Dimensions in African History: The London Lectures of Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan and Dr. John Henrik Clarke (1991); African People in World History (1993); Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism (1993).
expected of me,” Clarke wrote in “A Search for Identity.” His extraordinary academic ability was evident from a very early age. He once amazed an English teacher by “reading” a perfect essay to the class. The teacher later realized, after seeing that Clarke’s pages were blank, that he had composed the essay on the spot.
Clarke began teaching Sunday school when he was just nine-years old, and would read the Bible to elderly ladies in the community. During this time, when he was still just a child, Clarke began to formulate the questions that would occupy him for all of his academic career. “Reading the description of Christ as swarthy and with hair like sheep’s wool, I wondered why the church depicted him as blond and blue-eyed,” he wrote in “A Search for Identity.” “I looked up the map of Africa and I knew Moses had been born in Africa. How did Moses become so white? … I began to wonder how we had become lost from the commentary of world history.”
In addition to attending school, Clarke did odd jobs for various white families in the area. Interested in finding out more about African history, he asked a lawyer for whom he worked—and who had often lent Clarke books from his library—if he could borrow a book on African history. “In a kindly way he told me that I came from a people who had no history but, that if I persevered and obeyed the laws, my people might one day make history,” Clarke wrote in “A Search for Identity.” “At that point of my life I began a systematic search for my people’s role in history.”
Despite Clarke’s demonstrated academic ability and a strong desire to learn, he was forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade in order to help support his family. As a teenager, he held a series of menial jobs, including working as a caddy for Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, and other officers at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In 1933, at the age of 17, Clarke hopped a freight train to New York. He made the decision to move north for two reasons: partly because he had heard about the literary and cultural fervor of the Harlem Renaissance, and wanted to join it; and partly because he was frustrated at his inability to check out books from the segregated public library in his hometown. Clarke settled in Harlem, supporting himself with a series of low-paying jobs; in his off-hours, he focused on his own education, and on writing poems and short stories, which were published in various magazines and newspapers.
As a young man in New York, Clarke spent hours researching in the city’s public libraries; “I was a Depression radical—always studying, always reading,” he recalled in “A Search for Identity.” Eventually Clarke found a mentor, Arthur Schomburg, a pioneering scholar in African studies. Schomberg’s collection of work on African American and African culture would later become the core of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the public libraries of New York. Like Clarke, Schomburg had been led to study African history after being told that Africans had no history before European colonization. “It was he who is responsible for what I am and what value I have in the field of African history and the history of Black people all over the world,” Clarke wrote in “A Search for Identity.”
During World War II Clarke was drafted in the Army, and was stationed in San Antonio, Texas; afterward, he returned to New York and his research. Although Clarke took classes at New York University—where he studied history, world literature, and creative writing—and Columbia University, he did not earn a degree from either institution. Decades later, at the age of 78, he would earn a doctorate from the nonaccredited Pacific Western University in Los Angeles.
During the 1940s, Clarke began teaching African and African American history in community centers in Harlem. “At first I was an exceptionally poor teacher. I was nervous, overanxious, and impatient with my students,” he wrote in “A Search for Identity.” “I had to acquire patience with young people who giggled when they were told about African kings. I had to understand that these young people had been so brainwashed by our society that they could see themselves only as depressed beings.”
From 1956 to 1958, Clarke taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1958 and 1959, he traveled throughout West Africa, delivering lectures on African history at many institutions, including the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and the University of Ghana in Accra. Throughout his life, he maintained the prodigious memory he had demonstrated as a child; he often amazed his students and audiences by delivering complex, detailed lectures without notes.
Clarke eventually earned a license to teach African and African American history in New York from People’s College in Málveme, Long Island. In 1964, after more than 20 years of teaching in Harlem community centers, Clarke landed his first regular school assignment: director of the Heritage Teaching Program for the Harlem Youth-Associat ed Community Teams (Haryou-Act), an anti-poverty agency. He also taught African and African American history at New York University’s Head Start Training Program.
In addition to lecturing, Clarke co-founded the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and became associate editor of Freedom ways magazine. He also edited several collections of essays, short stories, and poems which appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, including Harlem: A Community in Transition (1964), American Negro Short Stories (1966—later reissued as Black American Short Stories in 1993), Malcolm X: The Man and His Times (1969), Slave Trade and Slavery (1970), Harlem USA (1971), and Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa (1973).
At this time, Clarke began to emerge as a key figure in the movement to spread knowledge about African history and culture. “The Black Power explosion and the Black Studies explosion had pushed men like me to the forefront in developing approaches to creative and well-documented Black curricula,” Clarke wrote in “A Search for Identity.”
As Clarke’s radically Afrocentric scholarship became better known, it began to generate controversy among more established historians—controversy which he would continue to court actively throughout his life. “Most of the world’s major religions and nearly every textbook have made serious efforts to interpret history without Africans playing a major role,” Clarke claimed in African People in World History “The fact that civilization started with African people has been ignored, and the contributions that African people are now making to the world are minimized.” According to Robert McG. Thomas Jr., writing in the New York Times, some of Clarke’s scholarship “was dismissed by traditional historians as specious propaganda seeking to aggrandize African influence on Western culture.” Clarke always defended his views, however, “accusing white scholars of having disguised their own Eurocentric propaganda as historic fact,” Thomas wrote.
One such controversy erupted over the book William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Scholars Respond, which was edited by Clarke and published in 1968. Clarke and the other contributors accused Styron of painting a false picture of slavery and of Turner’s character in the acclaimed novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Even as Clarke generated controversy, though, his views gained coverage in the mainstream media. The same year, Clarke served as a consultant and coordinator of the CBS television series, “Black Heritage: The History of Afro-Americans.”
In 1969, Clarke joined the faculty of Hunter College, City University of New York, as a lecturer. During his years at Hunter, Clarke played a leading role in establishing the black studies program there; later, he also helped to found the black studies program at Cornell University. By 1970, he had been appointed associate professor in the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
As a college instructor, Clarke discovered that the students were just as ignorant of African history as the young people he had taught in Harlem—although in a different way. “On the college level I encountered another kind of young black student—much older than those who giggled—the kind who does not believe in himself, does not believe in history, and who consequently is in revolt,” Clarke wrote in “A Search for Identity.”
Even after he retired from Hunter in 1985, Clarke continued to travel and deliver lectures all over the world. Several of these lectures were later collected and published; these included New Dimensions in African History: The London Lectures of Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan and Dr. John Henrik Clarke and African People in World History.
Clarke also continued to generate controversy. In 1993, responding to the 1992 celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World, Clarke published the book Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism “Christopher Columbus had helped to set in motion the Atlantic slave trade, the single greatest holocaust in human history,” Clarke claimed. Instead of a day of celebration, he suggested, Columbus Day should become “a justifiable day of mourning for the millions of Africans and so-called ‘Indians’ who died to accommodate the spread of European control over the Americas and Caribbean Islands.”
Clarke also maintained his political idealism, writing a handbook for the Pan-African political movement, African People at the Crossroads: Notes for an African World Revolution “My approach to the subject, an African World Revolution, might sometime sound like a fantasy, but please bear in mind that sometimes the fantasy of today is tomorrow’s reality,” he wrote. “The ultimate answer is Pan-Africanism.”
On July 16, 1998, Clarke died of a heart attack at the age of 83. With more than six decades of teaching and lecturing to his credit, Clarke’s influence is inestimable. As a teacher, Clarke strove to make his students understand the importance of learning their history as a way of understanding themselves. “Heritage, in essence, is the means by which people have used their talents to create a history that gives them memories they can respect and that they can use to command the respect of other people,” Clarke wrote in “A Search for Identity.” “The ultimate purpose of heritage and heritage teaching is to use people’s talents to develop awareness and pride in themselves so that they themselves can achieve good relationships with other people.”
ben-Jochannan, Yosef, and John Henrik Clarke, New Dimensions in African History: The London Lectures of Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan and Dr. John Henrik Clarke, African World Press, 1991.
Clarke, John Henrik, African People in World History, Black Classic Press, 1993.
Clarke, John Henrik, Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism, A & B Publishers, 1993.
Slave Trade and Slavery, edited by John Henrik Clarke and Vincent Harding, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
New York Times, July 20, 1998, p. A13.
"Clarke, John Henrik 1915–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/clarke-john-henrik-1915-1998
"Clarke, John Henrik 1915–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/clarke-john-henrik-1915-1998
Clarke, John Henrik
Clarke, John Henrik
January 1, 1915
July 16, 1998
The historian John Henrik Clarke, a founding father of Afrocentrism, was born in Union Springs, Alabama. He moved to New York's Harlem in 1933. During the 1930s he attempted, unsuccessfully, to publish plays and poems and began his intensive reading of African and world history under the guidance of the African-American bibliographer Arthur Schomburg. Clarke also became involved in the Young Communists League. Although he never actually joined the Communist Party, he was long active in left-wing African-American groups, including the Harlem Writers Guild.
In 1941 Clarke entered the U.S. military, and he served throughout the war as a master sergeant in the Army Air Forces. During the postwar years, he taught African and Afro-American history at the New School for Social Research, worked as a columnist and writer, and began developing his thesis that black Americans were Africans who shared in Africa's advanced cultural and political legacy.
During the 1960s, Clarke was energized by the civil rights movement. In 1962 he began a twenty-year assignment as assistant editor of the newspaper Freedomways. He also became a close associate of Malcolm X and in 1964 drew up the charter for Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity. Clarke also continued his historical/literary pursuits, eventually writing twenty-three books. In 1966 he edited an anthology, American Negro Short Stories, and two years later compiled the anthology William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. In 1970 Clarke became a professor of black studies at Hunter College. After retiring in 1986 he continued to lecture and write on Africa's legacy. With Yosef ben-Jochannan, he published New Dimensions in African History: The London Lectures of Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan and Dr. John Henrik Clarke in 1991. Clarke also published two studies, African People in World History and Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism in 1993.
Adams, Barbara Eleanor. John Henrik Clarke: Master Teacher. Brooklyn, N.Y.: A&B Publishers Group, 2000.
Bourne, St. Clair. John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk (film). New York: Cinema Guild, 1995.
greg robinson (1996)
"Clarke, John Henrik." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/clarke-john-henrik
"Clarke, John Henrik." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/clarke-john-henrik