Historian and scholar, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, is considered a courageous activist, a hero, and a legend. For over fifty years he dedicated his life to the intellectual and spiritual liberation of Afrikan people in their native homeland and across the Diaspora. This quest began with his own experience living in a segregated U.S. town and continued with the people who influenced him the most thoughout his life. As a master teacher, his desire was to pass their knowledge on to the next generation. He taught in several universities, founded departments for Afrikan studies, and wrote many books based upon his singular purpose: exposing the hidden history of the ancient Afrikan people.
John Henry Clark was born on New Year’s Day 1915 in Alabama to John and Willie Ella Clarke, as the eldest child of sharecroppers. His early childhood education was in a one room schoolhouse where the teachers did their best to educate the children, but faced an uphill battle. The public school term for Afrikans was ninety days, children were not obligated to attend, which often resulted in the inevitability of ignorance among the entire population of youngsters. As a result, he didn’t officially graduate from high school and, in fact, taught two generations of students before taking time out to receive his diploma, his B.A., his Masters degree, and his P.h.D.
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Culturally Rich Environment
Despite these inequities, he grew up in a culturally rich environment with lots of love, affection and discipline when needed. As Dr. Clarke came of age, he decided to change his middle name to Henrik after the 19th century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet, Henrik Ibsen and added the letter “e” to his last name. The new moniker may have been the catalyst that helped him resist his father’s wishes for him to remain in Alabama as a farmer. He eventually did leave the state by freight train in 1933. As part of the Great Afrikan American migration he pursued his academic studies and activism in Harlem, New York, the mecca of the Harlem Renaissance.
Dr. Clarke was fortunate to leave one culturally rich community for another, as Harlem teemed with businesses, theatres, social clubs, and the like created for Afrikan people by Afrikan people. He briefly aligned himself with the Communist and Socialist parties looking for a way out of the conditions Africans endured up to that point. These groups welcomed the Afrikans, opened doors for them, and gave them a platform that they otherwise would not have had for the exchange of ideas on how to better their situation.
One icon who unabashedly became a member of the Communist Party was Paul Robeson. He stood out in Dr. Clarke’s mind as an artist who made the supreme sacrifice based on the commitment of using his talents to change the society in which he lived. Another was W.E.B. Dubois. Dr Clarke considered him as not just a Black intellectual, he was an American intellectual equal to any and who could hold his own with the best of them.
In essence, the Communist Party was the closest ideal available that represented what Robeson and Dubois had in mind for the perfect society. One which gave a fair shake to working class people. The two men soon discovered they exchanged one form of oppression for another, both having different techniques and methodologies of oppression. The Communist party no more wanted Afrikans free than racist white Americans, Europeans in England, or the imperial powers. They only wanted to keep the race under their domination as a way to control them.
In the final analysis, neither the Communist nor the Socialist parties made any serious study of the history and the background of the Afrikan people of the world. Their preconceived notions of Afrikans had nothing to do with their reality. The Afrikan communal societies, where each citizen received according to their needs, weren’t copied from Europe because they existed before there was a Europe.
These societies, based on the family and the community, held that everyone in the society had a responsibility. In these societies there was no word for jail because no one had ever gone to one. There was no word for orphanage because no one had ever given up their children. There was no word for senior citizen's home because no one had ever left the elderly to fend for themselves. While Dr. Clarke had some admiration for the conclusion of Karl Marx, his opinion of the man was that he was a political opportunist and a latter day participant of the ideas he espoused. Marx rehashed his societal ideas that were in the world before the first European wore a shoe, lived in a house, or had a window.
Dr. Clarke was a staunch Pan-Afrikanist. His early writings and association with Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Richard Wright (before he wrote Native Son), and Arthur Schomburg reflected these influences. Schomburg, instrumental in establishing the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, became his mentor. He encouraged Dr. Clarke to study the history of the people who enslaved him to discover why they found it a necessity to remove an entire people from the respectful commentary of the history of the world.
This charge sparked the beginning of his search for truth which led him to study European history and world history. His earliest impressions of his former slave masters was that these were a people who were in power and intended to remain in power. He wondered why they had so much, other people had so little, why everyone he knew worked harder than they did, and who made this arrangement?
When he went back to Schomburg armed with knowledge of European history, it was then he taught Dr. Clarke how to study Afrikan history. Arthur Schomburg taught him the inter-relationship of Afrikan history to world history. Two other historians and mentors had a significant impact on his studies. Willison Huggins of the old Harlem History Club taught him the political meaning of history and through the lectures of William Leo Hansberry of Howard University he learned the philosophical meaning of history.
This three-prong approach to his education was valuable in that he found when you address a people by their correct name, that name must relate to land, history, and culture. All people go back to the geography of their original origin in identifying themselves no matter where they live on the face of the earth. He feels the word “black” has been overused because “black” tells how some of the Afrikan race look, but it doesn’t tell you who you are. He believed Africans are the only people who have lost that all-essential trait of geographical and historical reference.
Continue to part 2 of Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s epic biography.