John Henrik Clarke

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John Henrik Clarke
Born John Henry Clark
(1915-01-01)January 1, 1915
Union Springs, Alabama
Died July 12, 1998(1998-07-12) (aged 83)
Manhattan, New York City
Occupation Writer, historian, professor

Dr. John Henrik Clarke (born John Henry Clark, January 1, 1915 – July 12, 1998), was a Pan-Africanist writer, historian, professor, and a pioneer in the creation of Africana studies and professional institutions in academia starting in the late 1960s.

Early life and education[edit]

He was born John Henry Clark on January 1, 1915, in Union Springs, Alabama,[1] the youngest child of sharecroppers John (Doctor) and Willie Ella (Mays) Clark (who died in 1922).[2] With the hopes of earning enough money to buy land rather than sharecrop, his family moved to the nearest mill town, Columbus, Georgia.

Counter to his mother's wishes for him to become a farmer, Clarke left Georgia in 1933 by freight train and went to Harlem, New York as part of the Great Migration of rural blacks out of the South to northern cities. There he pursued scholarship and activism. He renamed himself as John Henrik (after rebel Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen) and added an "e" to his surname, spelling it as "Clarke."[3]

Positions in academia[edit]

Clarke was a professor of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1969 to 1986 and served as founding chairman of the department. He also was the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Visiting Professor of African History at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.[4] Additionally, he founded the African Heritage Studies Association along with the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association in 1968.

In its obituary of Clarke, The New York Times noted that the activist's ascension to professor emeritus at Hunter College was "unusual... without benefit of a high school diploma, let alone a Ph.D.," while acknowledging that "nobody said Professor Clarke wasn't an academic original."[5] In 1994, Clarke earned a doctorate from the non-accredited Pacific Western University (now California Miramar University) in Los Angeles, having earned a bachelor's degree there in 1992.[6]


By the 1920s, the Great Migration and demographic changes had led to a concentration of African Americans living in Harlem. A synergy developed among the artists, writers and musicians and many figured in the Harlem Renaissance. They began to develop supporting structures of study groups and informal workshops to develop newcomers and young people.

Arriving in Harlem at the age of 18 in 1933,[5] Clarke developed as a writer and lecturer during the Great Depression years. He joined study circles such as the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers' Workshop. He studied intermittently at New York University, Columbia University, Hunter College, the New School of Social Research and the League for Professional Writers.[6][7] He was an autodidact whose mentors included the scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.[8] From 1941 to 1945, Clarke served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army Air Forces, ultimately attaining the rank of master sergeant.[6]

In the post-World War II era, there was new artistic development, with small presses and magazines being founded and surviving for brief times. Writers and publishers continued to start new enterprises: Clarke was co-founder of the Harlem Quarterly (1949–51), book review editor of the Negro History Bulletin (1948–52), associate editor of the magazine, Freedomways, and a feature writer for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier.[7]

Clarke taught at the New School for Social Research from 1956 to 1958.[9] Traveling in West Africa in 1958–59, he met Kwame Nkrumah, whom he had mentored as a student in the US,[10] and was offered a job working as a journalist for the Ghana Evening News. He also lectured at the University of Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, including in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan.[11]

Becoming prominent during the Black Power movement in the 1960s, which began to advocate a kind of black nationalism, Clarke advocated for studies on the African-American experience and the place of Africans in world history. He challenged the views of academic historians and helped shift the way African history was studied and taught. Clarke was "a scholar devoted to redressing what he saw as a systematic and racist suppression and distortion of African history by traditional scholars."[5] He accused his detractors of having Eurocentric views. His writing included six scholarly books and many scholarly articles. He also edited anthologies of writing by African Americans, as well as collections of his own short stories. In addition, he published general interest articles.[5] In one especially heated controversy, he edited and contributed to an anthology of essays attacking William Styron and his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner..

Besides teaching at Hunter College and Cornell University, Clarke founded professional associations to support the study of black culture. He was a founder with Leonard Jeffries and first president of the African Heritage Studies Association, which supported scholars in areas of history, culture, literature and the arts. He was a founding member of other organizations to support work in black culture: the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the African-American Scholars' Council.[7]

Personal life and death[edit]

Clarke's first marriage was to the mother of his daughter Lillie (who eventually pre-deceased her father).[11] In 1961, Clarke married Eugenia Evans in New York, and together they had a son and daughter: Nzingha Marie and Sonni Kojo.[11] The marriage ended in divorce.

In 1997, John Henrik Clarke married his longtime companion, Sybil Williams.[12][13] He died of a heart attack on July 12, 1998, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center.[5] He was buried in Green Acres Cemetery, Columbus, Georgia.[14]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • 1985 – Faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University named the John Henrik Clarke Library after him.[15]
  • 1995 – Carter G. Woodson Medallion, Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.
  • 2002 – Molefi Kete Asante listed Dr. John Henrik Clarke as one of his 100 Greatest African Americans.[16]
  • 2011 – Immortal Technique includes a short speech by Dr. Clarke on his album The Martyr. It is Track 13, which is entitled "The Conquerors".

Selected bibliography[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Dr. John Henrik Clarke", Race and History.
  2. ^ i, w. gabriel selassie, "Clarke, John Henrik (1915-1998)",
  3. ^ Adams, Barbara E. John Henrik Clarke: Master Teacher. New York: A&B Publishers Group. ISBN 978-1-61759-012-2
  4. ^ Eric Kofi Acree, "John Henrik Clarke: Historian, Scholar, and Teacher", Cornell University Library.
  5. ^ a b c d e Thomas, Jr., Robert McG. (July 20, 1998). "John Henrik Clarke, Black Studies Advocate, Dies at 83". New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2009. 
  6. ^ a b c Andy Wallace, "John H. Clarke, 83, Leading African American Historian", (The Inquirer), July 18, 1998.
  7. ^ a b c "John Henrik Clarke", Legacy Exhibit online, New Jersey Public Library - Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture; accessed January 20, 2009. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "John_Henrik_Clarke" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  8. ^ Jacob H. Carruthers, "John Henrik Clarke: the Harlem connection to the founding of Africana Studies", in Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc., 2006; accessed May 25, 2009.
  9. ^ Golus, Carrie, "Clarke, John Henrik 1915–1998", Contemporary Black Biography. 1999.
  10. ^ "Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Professor Emeritus, Hunter College, CUNY", Sankofa World Publishers.
  11. ^ a b c "Clarke, John Henrik(1915–1998) - Historian, writer, educator, Harlem: An Unconventional Education",
  12. ^ Christopher Williams, "Clarke, John Henrik", in Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (eds), Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 118.
  13. ^ Rochell Isaac, "Clarke, John Henrik", in Encyclopedia of African American History: Volume 1, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 424.
  14. ^ "Historical People", Green Acres Cemetery.
  15. ^ "History of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library", reprinted from Black Caucus of the ALA Newsletter, vol. XXIV, No. 5 (April 1996), p. 11; Cornell University Library, accessed January 20, 2009.
  16. ^ Molefi Kete Asante (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]