John Henrik Clarke was the most brilliant, profound, and empowering educators of our time. Dr. Clarke was a voracious reader, inspired by Richard Wright’s Black Boy. He has credited, Ms. Harris, his third grade teacher who convinced him that one-day he would be a writer. I found a little know fact about Dr. Clarke; as a youngster Clark caddied for Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley “long before they became Generals or President,” Clarke would later recount in describing his upbringing in rural Alabama.
He moved to Harlem and committed himself to a lifelong pursuit of factual knowledge about the history of his people and creative application of that knowledge. Over the years, Clarke became both a major historian and a man of letters. His literary accomplishments including over two hundred short stories written with “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” is his best known.
Dr. Clarke edited numerous literary and historical anthologies including American Negro Short Stories (1966), an anthology which included nineteenth century writing from writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Waddell Chestnut, and continued up through the early sixties with writers such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and William Melvin Kelley. This is one of the classic collections of Black fiction.
Reflective of his commitment to his adopted home, Clarke also edited Harlem, A Community in Transition and Harlem, U.S.A. Never one to shy away from the difficult or the controversial, Clarke edited anthologies on Malcolm X and a major collection of essays decrying William Styron’s “portrait” of Nat Turner as a conflicted individual who had a love/hate platonic and sexually-fantasized relationship with Whites. In both cases, Clarke’s work was in defense of the dignity and pride of his beloved Black community rather than an attack on Whites.
What is significant is that Clarke did the necessary and tedious organizing work to bring these volumes into existence. Thereby offer an alternative outlook from the dominant mainstream views on Malcolm X and Nat Turner, both of whom were often characterized as militant hate mongers. What I found to be interesting was that Clarke’s work was never simply focused on investigating history as the past, he also was proactively involved with history in the making.
As a historian Clarke also edited a book on Marcus Garvey and edited Africa, Lost and Found (with Richard Moore and Keith Baird) and African People at the Crossroads, two seminal historical works widely used in History and African American Studies disciplines on college and university campuses. Through the United Nations he published monographs on Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. As an activist-historian he produced the monograph Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust. His most recently published book was Who Betrayed the African Revolution?
In the form of edited books, monographs, major essays and book introductions, John Henrik Clarke produced well over forty major historical and literary documents. Rarely, if ever, has one man delivered so much quality and inspiring literature. Moreover, John Henrik Clarke was also an inquisitive student who became a master teacher.
During his early years in Harlem, Clarke made the most of the rare opportunities to be mentored by many of the great 20th century Black historians and bibliophile. Clarke studied under and learned from men such as Arthur Schomburg, William Leo Hansberry, John G. Jackson, Paul Robeson, Willis Huggins and Charles Seiffert, all of whom, sometimes quietly behind the scenes and other times publicly in the national and international spotlight, were significant movers and shakers, theoreticians and shapers of Black intellectual and social life in the 20th century.
John Henrik Clarke is in many ways exemplary of the American ethos of a self-made man. Indicative of this characteristic is the fact that Clarke changed his given name of John Henry Clark to reflect his aspirations. In an obituary he penned for himself shortly before his death, John Henrik Clarke noted “little black Alabama boys were not fully licensed to imagine themselves as conduits of social and political change. …they called me ‘bubba’ and because I had the mind to do so, I decided to add the ‘e’ to the family name ‘Clark’ and change the spelling of ‘Henry’ to ‘Henrik,’ after the Scandinavian rebel playwright, Henrik Ibsen.”
Body and soul, John Henrik Clarke was a true champion of Black people. He bequeathed us a magnificent legacy of accomplishment and inspiration borne out of the earnest commitment of one irrepressible young man to make a difference in the daily and historical lives of his people. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…
Viva, John Henrik Clarke!
Resource: Black College Online