If you have ever taken an African studies course in America or feel a part of the global re-energization and excitement about Africa and Pan-Africanism, then, you owe a lot to this man: John Henrik Clarke.
Clarke was an American historian, professor, activist and a preeminent leader in the creation of Pan-Africanism and Africana studies in academic institutions in the U.S.
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Clarke was born, “John Henry Clark,” on January 1, 1915, in Union Springs, Alabama. His father was a sharecropper and his mother, a washerwoman. At 17, Clarke took a freight train from his family home in Georgia to Harlem, New York to start his own life. He was among over 6 million African Americans who were moving from the rural south to the north in the Great Migration of the 1930s.
Once north, Clarke changed his name to John Henrik Clarke, his middle name “Henrik” was after the Scandinavian rebel playwright Henrik Ibsen. Clarke then found and studied under historian, writer, and activist, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who sparked his dedication to “digging up the intellectual, cultural, and political past of the African in a global world”.
During the Black power movement in the 1960s, Clarke became a strong advocate for studies on the African-American experience and African history. He became a thought leader for his generation, joining the Harlem History Club where he met other Pan African pioneers, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. In fact, upon visiting Nkrumah in Ghana in 1962, he founded the National Council of Black studies.
Clarke eventually served as professor of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1969 to 1986. He was also the founding chairman of the department. He also served as the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Visiting Professor of African History at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.
The surprising fact? Sources say that Clarke did all of this with only a fourth-grade education. In an obituary, The New York Times noted that Clarke’s ascension to professor emeritus at Hunter College was “unusual… without the benefit of a high school diploma, let alone a Ph.D”.
Some say that Clarke also practised law and worked as an architect and engineer without any formal training in either. He purportedly claimed that he had two Master degrees from Cambridge although the autodidact himself said, his “true university training occurred in public libraries and well chose second-hand bookstores”.
He went on to found the African Heritage Studies Association and the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association in 1966. He eventually earned a doctorate from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles in 1994, after completing his bachelor’s there. Clarke has a number of honorary doctorates, among them a 1993 honorary doctorate from renowned historically black college, Clark Atlanta University.
Clarke has authored, contributed, and edited over 24 books. He also wrote more than 200 short stories, including The Boy Who Painted Christ Black. One of his most famous quotes is from his Breaking the Chains of Slavery Lecture Series, 1994:
“I think every person that calls themselves a leader, a preacher, a policy maker of any kind should ask and answer the question in his own life time, how will my people stay on this earth? How will they be educated? How will they be schooled? How will they be housed? And how will they be defended? The answer to these questions will create the concept of enduring nationhood because it creates the concept of enduring responsibility. I am saying whatever the solution is, either we are in charge of our own destiny or we are not in charge. On that point we got to be clear, you either free or you a slave.”
Clarke is dearly beloved by many and his work continues to influence generations of African leaders. His work is a mainstay for African-American and African historians. Clarke died in 1998 at the age of 83.