If there is one continum that defines the life of Dr. Clarke, it is his committment to scholarship. Dr. Clarke was born on New Years Day of 1915 to sharecropper parents. At the age of 18, he had left home to escape the degradation of the Jim Crow south and moved to New York to complete his education in African History and become a Pan-African Activist.
Why African History?
Africa and its people are the most written about and the least understood of all of the world’s people. This condition started in the 15th and the 16th centuries with the beginning of the slave trade system. The Europeans not only colonialized most of the world, they began to colonialize information about the world and its people. In order to do this, they had to forget, or pretend to forget, all they had previously known abut the Africans. They were not meeting them for the first time; there had been another meeting during Greek and Roman times. At that time they complemented each other. The African, Clitus Niger, King of Bactria, was also a cavalry commander for Alexander the Great. Most of the Greeks’ thinking was influenced by this contact with the Africans. The people and the cultures of what is known as Africa are older than the word “Africa.” According to most records, old and new, Africans are the oldest people on the face of the earth. The people now called Africans not only influenced the Greeks and the Romans, they influenced the early world before there was a place called Europe.
Dr. Clarke goes on to assert that,
“… I maintain that the African is the final authority on Africa. In this regard I have reconsidered the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Williams, Drusilla Dungee Houston, Carter G. Woodson, Willis N. Huggins, and his most outstanding living student, John G. Jackson. I have also re-read the manuscripts of some of the unpublished books of Charles C. Seifert, especially manuscripts of his last completed book, Who Are The Ethiopians? Among Caribbean scholars, like Charles C. Seifert, J.A. Rogers (from Jamaica) is the best known and the most prolific. Over 50 years of his life was devoted to documenting the role of African personalities in world history. His two-volume work, World’s Great Men of Color, is a pioneer work in the field.
To understand fully any aspect of African-American life, one must realize that the African-American is not without a cultural past, though he was many generations removed from it before his achievements in American literature and art commanded any appreciable attention. Africana, or Black History, should be taught every day, not only in the schools, but also in the home. African History Month should be every month. We need to learn about all the African people of the world, including those who live in Asia and the islands of the Pacific.”
Connection to Other Pan-Africanists
When Dr. Clarke arrived in New York in 1933, he came in the wake of Marcus Garvey’s U.N.I.A., Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science movement. By the time he arrived, however, Marcus Garvey had already been deported (in 1927), and Noble Drew Ali had passed into eternity (in 1929). Although he never met the men, their influences would shape Dr. Clarke’s life’s work on the study and propagation of Pan-African academics.
In his autobiographical documentary, “A Great And Mighty Walk” , Dr. Clarke made mention of the many infuluential men and women that he has ahd the opportunity to come across:
“I have walked majestically with kings and queens and presidents and other heads of states. My special destiny with Africa, early on in this walk, afforded me the opportunity to mentor Kwame Nkrumah when he arrived in the United States as a student. The reciprocity of our relationship was manifested in my sojourn to post-independence Ghana as a young journalist. Without question, my walk has been sweeter because I have shared the path with Kwame Nkrumah, Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Jimmy Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Wright, Julian Mayfield, John G. Jackson, Cheikh Anta Diop, John O. Killens, Hoyt Fuller, Chancellor Williams, Drucella Dundee Houston.
Well, what do you know, I am transitioning with all of these giants now and the process is much easier because all of you are here with me. This walk has been anointed by God and the list of walkers is endless, and all of you have touched me deeply. I humbly acknowledge Dorothy Calder, Diane James, Doris Lee, Adalaide Sanford, Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis, Barbara Adams, Judy Miller, Gil Noble, James Turner, Howard Dodson, Mari Evans, Haki Madhabuti, Selma White, William and Camille Cosby, Irving Burgess, Pat Williams and others too numerous to mention.”
He also discusses the first time he and Malcolm X, The Prince of Pan-Africanism met:
“I first met Malcolm at the World’s Trade show building. He looked me up and down and said ‘I bet you you are a swine eater.’ I admit that I had paid some joyful visits to pork chops and other parts of the pig. And I said that ‘Malcolm you know if it wasn’t for the pig you and I wouldn’t be here arguing about the pig cause some of us would be gone. We would have starved to death.’
Many times when Malcolm X prefaced his speeches with the words ’the honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us.’ Malcolm X was teaching Malcolm X lessons over and beyond anything the Honorable Elijah Muhammad ever thought about.
The Arabs and certain powerful groups within Islam really wanted Malcolm on their side. There was a serious attempts to persuade Malcolm to turn on Elijah Muhammad and establish a second Islamic group based on what they considered Orthodox Islam.
They offered him $3.5 million. He turned it down. And we were walking down the street towards his car. This man had turned down 3.5 million dollars whacked me on the shoulder and said ‘Swine eater, let me buy you a cup of coffee.’
He was more loyal to Elijah Muhammad eventually was to him. Elijah Muhammad was getting old and feeble and there was suspicion that Malcolm X would be the logical successor. There was those within the nation who didn’t want Malcolm X as the logical successor because Malcolm X would have done some serious house cleaning. He was an honest man. There were some thieves in the house.”
For 83 years of his life, Dr. Clarke actively participated in Pan-African movements, both in the classroom and on the streets. Some have even written of Dr. Clarke’s influence on Hip Hop!
More than just an author and researcher, in the 1960s, Dr. John Henrick Clarke served as director of the African Heritage Program of the Harlem anti-poverty agency known as HARYOU-ACT, and as special consultant and coordinator for the Columbia University-WCBS-TV series Black Heritage (1968). He was the first president of the African Heritage Studies Association, and was a founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the African American Scholars’ Council. He has received over a dozen citations for excellence in teaching, was the recipient of the Thomas Hunter Professorship at Hunter College in 1983, and is presently Professor Emeriturs of African World History in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
Dr. Clarke’s life – like the lives of most of the men and women that we have featured here – became a symbol of the qualities we wish to claim, to emulate, and to engender: commitment, self-reliance, communalism, intelligence, scholarly excellence, determination, discipline, conviction and achievement. He was, is, and always will be our Pan-African scholar warrior!
It is most fitting that I leave you with his closing words from his essay, Why Africana History:
In the twenty-first century there will be over one billion African people in the world. We are tomorrow’s people. But, of course, we were yesterday’s people, too. With an understanding of our new importance we can change the world, if first we change ourselves.
Clarke had three children with his first wife, Eugenia Evans Clarke. At his death, he survived by his second wife, Sybille Williams Clarke, and his two children, Nzingha Marie and Sonni Kojo. A third child (Lillie) preceded him in death.
He is buried in Green Acres Cemetery, Columbus, Georgia.
Selected Works By And About Dr. John Henrick Clarke
No number of words that we write here can give you an understanding of the importance of Dr. John Henrick Clarke’s works. You must read his works for yourself, for they serve as a foundation for the knowledge that has given rise to our movement today! In addition to these works, check out this bibliography of Dr. John Henrick Clarke’s works.
- Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism
- African People in World History
- Who Betrayed the African World Revolution?
- World’s Great Men of Color, Volume I: Asia and Africa, and Historical Figures Before Christ, Including Aesop, Hannibal, Cleopatra, Zenobia, Askia the Great, and Many Others
- Introduction to African Civilizations
- John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History: Africalogical Quest for Decolonization and Sovereignty
- Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa
- New Dimensions in African History
- Malcolm X: The Man and His Times