John Henrik Clarke (born John Henry Clark, January 1, 1915 – July 12, 1998) is a writer, historian, Pan-African professor and pioneer in the creation of African studies and professional institutions in the academy since the late 1960s.
Early childhood and education
John Henry Clark was born on January 1, 1915, in Union Springs, Alabama, the youngest son of John (a charmer) and Willie Ella (Mays) Clarke (a machine gunner), (died 1922). Hoping to earn enough money to buy land instead of carrots, his family moved to the nearest mill town, Columbus, Georgia.
Contrary to her mother’s desire to become a farmer, Clarke left Georgia on a freight train in 1933 and traveled to Harlem, New York, as part of the Great Black Migration from the village of the South to the cities of North, where he continued his studies and his activism. He was renamed John Henrik (after the Norwegian rebel dramatist Henrik Ibsen) and added an “e” to his surname, rewriting it as “Clarke.”
Positions at the academia
Clarke was Professor of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of New York University from 1969 to 1986, where he was the founding chair of the department. He was also a distinguished visiting professor of African history, Carter G. Woodson, at the Center for African Studies and Research at Cornell University. In 1968, he founded the African Heritage Studies Association and the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association.
In his obituary for Clarke, the New York Times noted that the activist’s rise to the position of professor emeritus at Hunter College was “unusual … without the benefit of high school, let alone a doctorate.” He admitted that “no one said that Professor Clarke was not an academic original.” In 1994, Clarke obtained a doctorate from Western Pacific University (now Miramar University of California) in Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1992.
In the 1920s, massive migrations and demographic changes led to the concentration of African Americans living in Harlem. Synergy has developed between artists, writers, and musicians and many figures from the Harlem Renaissance. Support structures for study groups and informal workshops for the development of newcomers and young people have started to develop.
Upon arriving at Harlem at the age of 18 in 1933, Clarke developed as a writer and teacher during the years of the Great Depression. He has joined study circles such as the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers’ Workshop. He has sometimes studied at New York University, Columbia University, Hunter College, New School for Social Research, and the League of Professional Writers. He was a self-taught tutor by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. From 1941 to 1945, Clarke was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Air Force, eventually arriving at the rank of sergeant.
In the aftermath of World War II, a new artistic development took place, with small prints and magazines established and surviving brief moments. Writers and publishers continued to open new businesses: Clarke co-founded Harlem Quarterly (1949-1951), editor-in-chief of the Black History Bulletin (1948-1952), associate editor of Freedomways magazine, and writer principal. For the Pittsburgh Courier Black Estate.
Clarke taught at the New School for Social Research from 1956 to 1958. Traveling to West Africa from 1958 to 1959, he met Kwame Nkrumah, whom he directed as a student in the United States, and is seen offering a journalist position for Ghana’s Evening News. He also taught at the University of Ghana and other parts of Africa, including Nigeria, at the University of Ibadan.
Standing out during the Black Power movement in the 1960s, which began to advocate a kind of black nationalism, Clarke supported studies of the African-American experience and the place of Africans in world history. He challenged the opinions of university historians and helped change the way African history is studied and taught. Clarke was “a scholar dedicated to repairing what he saw as the systematic and racist repression and distortion of African history by traditional scholars.” He accused his bad guys of having Eurocentric opinions. His writings included six academic books and numerous scholarly articles. He has also published anthologies of African American writings as well as collections of his own stories. Besides, Clarke has published reports of general interest. In a particularly tumultuous controversy, he edited and contributed to an anthology of African American essays attacking the white writer William Styron and his novel Confessions of a Nat Turner for his fictional presentation of an African American slave known to have led the rebellion in Virginia.
In addition to teaching at Hunter College and Cornell University, Clarke has established professional associations to support the study of black culture. He is the founder of Leonard Jeffries and the first president of the Association for African Heritage Studies, which has supported academics in the fields of history, culture, literature, and the arts. He was one of the founders of other organizations that have helped work on black culture: the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the African American Scholarship Council.
He died of a heart attack on July 12, 1998, at St. John’s Hospital. Luke’s Roosevelt. He is buried at Green Acres Cemetery in Columbus, Georgia. Although he was completely blind in the end, he still managed to lecture and write books.