Clarke, John Henrik 1915–1998

views updated May 23 2018

John Henrik Clarke 19151998


Asked Questions about African History

Espoused Controversial Views

Established Black Studies at Hunter College


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 wasnt an academic original, Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in Clarkes 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.

Asked Questions about African History

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 Clarkes father decided to move the family to Columbus, Georgia, a mill town. Clarkes 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; Peoples 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 Styrons 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 Clarkes 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 sheeps 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 workedand who had often lent Clarke books from his libraryif 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 peoples role in history.

Despite Clarkes 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 citys public libraries; I was a Depression radicalalways studying, always reading, he recalled in A Search for Identity. Eventually Clarke found a mentor, Arthur Schomburg, a pioneering scholar in African studies. Schombergs 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 Universitywhere he studied history, world literature, and creative writingand 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.

Espoused Controversial Views

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 Peoples 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 Universitys 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 (1966later 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 Clarkes radically Afrocentric scholarship became better known, it began to generate controversy among more established historianscontroversy which he would continue to court actively throughout his life. Most of the worlds 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 Clarkes 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 Styrons 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 Turners 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.

Established Black Studies at Hunter College

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 Harlemalthough in a different way. On the college level I encountered another kind of young black studentmuch older than those who giggledthe 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 tomorrows 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, Clarkes 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 peoples 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.

Carrie Golus

Clarke, John Henrik

views updated May 18 2018

John Henrik Clarke

Historian, writer, educator

Black Nationalist, Pan-Africanist, writer, and historian John Henrik Clarke is a part of a generation of African American scholars devoted to the restoration of African history and African peoples from limited, distorted, and racist characterizations. He is known as one of the most significant contributors to the development of African and African American studies in American colleges and universities during the post-civil rights era.

John Henrik Clarke was born on January 1, 1915 to Will Ella Mayes Clark and John Clark in Union Springs, Alabama. Clarke was born John Henry Clark; he altered his name by adding an "e" to his last name and changing his middle name to Henrik in honor of Henrik Ibsen, a playwright whom Clarke admired. Clarke's parents were sharecroppers. In his oral autobiography, recorded by Barbara Adams, Clarke explains that his family was nurturing and supportive of the children. With hopes of making more money, his father decided to move his family to Columbus, Georgia. In Columbus, Clarke's mother worked as a washerwoman and his father worked in a brick yard. Clarke had two siblings, Mary and Nathaniel. Clarke's mother died of pellagra, a disease caused by deficiency of niacin, which was not curable at the time. About a year later, his father married again. His father and stepmother had three additional children. In his oral autobiography, Clarke refers to the woman his father married only as his stepmother. Clarke explained that his stepmother informed him often, "I married your father, but I am not your mother." Finding his home life intolerable, at the age of fourteen Clarke moved out of his father's home. Clarke indicates that his mother's other children soon left his father's house, too. He moved into a boarding school run by Rosa Lee Brown who was supportive of Clarke.

Harlem: An Unconventional Education

While Clarke's intellectual and creative potential were recognized by his teachers, poverty and circumstance did not permit him to complete high school. He left school in the eighth grade to work. In 1933, he and his friend James Holmes left for New York. When they arrived in Harlem, they had difficulty finding a place to live and work. But their circumstances changed when they met a man named George Victor. Victor was a communist and recruited Clarke and his friend to become members of the Lower East Side's Young Communist League. Clarke's affiliation with the communist organization gave him a number of contacts and allowed him to further his education by exposing him to new ideas and books. However, Clarke eventually split with the communists over the issue of race. Clarke's first loyalty was to his race and his communist friends believed this to be a problem.

While Clarke worked as a dishwasher, he also participated in various educational clubs. As a member of a history club, he was in contact with well known scholars such as John Jackson and Willis Huggins. Black leaders and scholars, including the first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, visited the club. During this time, Clarke was mentored by scholar and librarian Arthur Schomburg. In 1931, Clarke was impressed by one of Schomburg's essays, "The Negro Digs Up His Past," and he was encouraged by this essay to meet Schomburg, which he did in 1934. At the time Schomburg was the librarian in charge of special collections at the 135th Street branch of New York City Public Libraries (which would later become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Conversations with Schomburg gave Clarke a strong foundation for continuing his studies in history. Arthur Schomburg died in 1938, but Clarke continued his studies of history.

From 1941 to 1945, Clarke served in the army and was successful in administrative duties. After returning to New York, he married the mother of his first child, a daughter who eventually died. The couple had difficulties and soon divorced. Despite these personal problems, however, Clarke continued to grow intellectually.

During the late 1940s, Clarke taught African and African American history at various community centers in Harlem. In 1949, he worked as an administrator for the New School for Social Research. In 1956, he began teaching at the New School. From 1958 to1959, Clarke traveled through West Africa, spending a good portion of his time in Ghana. He met Kwame Nkrumah, who remembered Clarke from the history club in New York. Nkrumah offered him a job working for the newspaper, The Evening News. He also lectured in Africa at various places, including the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and at the University of Ghana.

Scholar, Educator, Advocate for Black Studies

When he returned to the United States, Clarke was certified to teach, obtaining a license from the People's College in Malverne, New York. In 1961, he married Eugenia Evans, a teacher. Clarke and Evans had two children: a daughter, Nzinga Marie, and a son Sonni Kojo. In 1964, Clarke accepted a position as director of the Heritage Teaching Program for the Harlem Youth-Associated Community Teams. He taught African and African American history in the Head Start Training Program at New York University in Manhattan. During this time, Clarke also worked as an associate editor for Freedomways magazine. While he had published numerous short stories, including his most famous, "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black," during this time he began to publish books on African and African American studies. He edited and published an anthology of African American short stories in 1966, Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best. He also published several books on African history, including Malcolm X: The Man and His Time (1969), Slave Trade and Slavery, a book co-edited with historian Vincent Harding in 1970, and the anthology Harlem Voices (1970).


Born in Union Springs, Alabama on January 1
Family moves to Columbus, Georgia
Leaves father's house and moves into boarding house
Arrives in Harlem
Serves in the United States Army
Works as an administrator at the New School for Social Research in New York City
Works as both a student and a teacher at the New School for Social Research; establishes Center for African Studies at the New School for Social Research
Travels to West Africa
Marries Eugenia Evans
Teaches adult continuing education at Malverne High School in Malverne, New York
Publishes anthology, Black American Short Stories, a Century of the Best
Accepts position as lecturer at Hunter College in New York City; establishes the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter
Works as a visiting professor in African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; promoted to associate professor at Hunter College; publishes Slave Trade and Slavery with Vincent Harding
Retires from Hunter College
Publishes lectures with Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan; publishes Africans at the Crossroads
Earns B.A. from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California
Publishes African People in World History; publishes Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust
Earns Ph.D. from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California
Marries Sybil Williams
Dies in New York City on July 16

In the 1960s, Clarke was widely recognized as an authority in the field of African history. His books and articles on African and African American history and social issues in journals and magazines added to his reputation. In 1969, he accepted a position as lecturer at Hunter College in New York City. He helped to establish the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter. In 1970, he was promoted to associate professor at Hunter College. In addition to teaching at Hunter College, from 1970 to 1973, he was a visiting professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

In 1985, Clarke retired from Hunter College, but he continued to lecture on African history in the United States and aboard. In 1991, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, an African-centered historian, and Clarke published a collection of their lectures given in London. Clarke also published African People at the Crossroads (1991). In 1993 he published Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust in which he argues that Columbus Day should not be celebrated. Also in 1993, he published African People in World History.

Clarke had taught courses in African and African American history; had helped to establish black studies programs, departments, and research centers on at least three college campuses; and had published extensively on black history and on social issues. But he did not have a high school diploma, an undergraduate degree, or an advanced degree. In 1992, this changed when Clarke earned his bachelor's degree from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California, and in 1994 he earned his doctorate from the same university. In 1997, Clarke married for a third time, this time to Sybil Williams. Clarke suffered a heat attack and died on July 16, 1998; he was 83.

In November 2000, the New York City Council renamed Harlem's 137th Street Dr. John Henrik Clarke Place. Students, scholars, and activists are indebted to Clarke for his life of service and commitment to African studies.



Adams, Barbara Eleanor, and John Henrik Clarke. John Henrik Clarke: The Early Years. Hampton, Va.: United Brothers and Sisters Communications, 1992.

"John Henrik Clarke." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 20. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 1998.


Clarke, John Henrik. "The Influence of Arthur Schomburg on My Concept of Africana Studies" Phylon 49 (Spring 1992): 4-9.

Harris, Robert L. "In Memoriam: Dr. John Henrik Clarke, 1915–1998." Journal of Negro History 83 (Autumn 1998): 311-12.

Kelley, Robin D. G. "Self-Made Angry Man." New York Times Magazine (3 January 1999): 17-19.

Thomas, Robert. "John Henrik Clarke, Black Studies Advocate, Dies at 83." New York Times, 20 July 1998.


Clarke's papers are available at the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research; the Africana Studies Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and at the Woodruff Library in Atlanta, Georgia.

                                        Rebecca Dixon

Clarke, John Henrik

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

See also Afrocentrism; Communist Party of the United States; Harlem Writers Guild; Malcolm X; Schomburg, Arthur


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)
Updated bibliography