John Henrik Clarke – The pioneer who made Africana Studies prominent in Academia

Dr. John Henrik Clarke 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.

Born John Henry Clark on January 1, 1915, in Union Springs, Alabama, John left the family farm in Columbus in 1933 to Harlem, New York during the period some historians refer to as; The Great Migration.
This period refers to the time during 1910 and 1970, where African Americans moved from the southern states, to the northern states in search of work and a better quality of life.

There he pursued scholarship and activism. He renamed himself as John Henrik, after the rebel Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and added an “e” to his surname, spelling it as “Clarke.” The reasoning for this is unknown, as John did not document this change in any of his personal diaries.

Career
Arriving in Harlem at the age of 18 in 1933, Clarke developed as a writer and lecturer during the Great Depression years, becoming a part of the movement we now understand as the Harlem Renaissance.
Much of this development came through Clarke becoming a member of several study circles such as the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers’ Workshop.

However, a formal education was not something Clarke completed as he studied intermittently at New York University, Columbia University, Hunter College, the New School of Social Research and the League for Professional Writers.
He was an autodidact whose mentors included the scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

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.

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.

Clarke taught at the New School for Social Research from 1956 to 1958. Traveling in West Africa in 1958–59, he met Kwame Nkrumah, whom he had mentored as a student in the US, 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.

Academic Career
Clarke was the founding chairman of the department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, a subsidiary of City University of New York between 1969 and 1986.

Additionally, Clarke was named as the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Visiting Professor of African History at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, founding the African Heritage Studies Association along with the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association in 1968- two causes which helped him become a founding chairman.

This jump from ‘farm-boy’ to ‘professional academic’ is noted in The New York Times obituary of Jon, which read; 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.”

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.

Legacy

John Henrick Clarke’s greatest period of influence resides in the 1960’s where he was a prominent intellectual during the Black Power Movement, advocating 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.” And 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.

In one especially heated controversy, Clarke edited and contributed to an anthology of essays attacking William Styron, an American Novelist who wrote and the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner; the leader of the Virginia slave revolt in 1831.

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 organisations to support work in black culture: the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the African-American Scholars’ Council.

Honors

1985 – Faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University named the John Henrik Clarke Library after him.

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.

Comments

One of the contributors to Africana Studies and we hope that his work will continue to inspire people to seek knowledge and truth through research. We will do what we can to preserve the legacy.


Baba John Henrik Clarke is one of our best African scholars of all-time.

Baba Clarke was smart, special and he had a gifted wit by teaching our glorious past and knowing that African people contributed not only to history, but the world.

Baba Clarke is one of my favourite African scholars undoubtedly so.

Baba Clarke must have been blinded, but it didn’t stop him from teaching us our glorious past times.

Thanks for the memories Baba John Henrik Clarke- a scholar, an anthropologist , a poet, a journalist, an author and a son of Africa.


Was he an atheist?


A man who should be followed.


DR. Clarke changed the spelling of his name because here in the southern part of the US the name John Henry is extremely common. There are many African people with that name. My brother , father and grandfather were named John Henry!!!!
The name John Henry is part of African American southern folklore. John Henry was the name of a legendary black man who stunned everybody with his boldness, courage, cunning and strength. John Henry was always outsmarting racist white people. He could be a deadly rebel or a comic hero of countless joke and stories. The name John Henry comes back to the era slavery in America.

Years ago in one of his audio lectures Dr. Clarke said he changed his name because he felt it to be so ordinary and that he admired Ibsen. I think Dr. Clarke said that he was very young and he did it to “distinguish himself’ by spelling his name differently from the many other John Henrys. Dr. Clarke didn’t linger over it. For him it was just something he did as a young man finding his way in the world.
Its hard to explain to foreigners, but to many of us, born here in the South, Dr. Clarke was a man so very deeply rooted in African American culture. He spoke like my grandfather spoke. When he spoke you could hear the elders speaking centuries ago……
and finally: no he was not an atheist. But he did have serious problems with organized
religions. They were “male chauvinist murder cults” for Baba Clarke.


I , am one who is beyound any doubt greatful to be alive , with the opprotunity too be blessed to read , and listen to some of DR, John Hinriks
educational speaches. Thank God of both Heaven And Earth for such a man , therefor , lets keep the education rolling, please keep passing it on.


How a book changed a life:
77 years ago (@ age 9) a Pullman Porter, by the name of Mr. Ross, gave me a book about the adventures of Matthew Henson (an explorer of the north pole) which LIBERATED MY MIND to think outside of the box that I, and so many others were confined during the 1930’s & 40’s…
Again, Thank you much Mr. Ross.

Bottomline: GIVE A BOOK that’ll enhance a young mind and encourage them to pursuit their dreams. 

https://www.amazon.com/gp/yourstore/pym/ref=pd_pyml_rhf

Most African-Americans expatriates (early-pioneers) that went to Africa and took take part in its liberation (freedom fighting & etc) had a born again experience; unfortunately they never wrote about them. Some are mention in “MY SANKOFA.”


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