John Henrik Clarke (1915 - 1998)
Was a intellectual mentor to Malcolm X, a teacher, historian, poet and writer and expert on African and African American history.
He was born New Years Day 1915 in Union Springs, Alabama. He was born the eldest of nine as John Henry Clarke and changed his name to Henrik in reference to the playwright Henrik Ibsen, author of A Doll’s House and father to modern theater. Clarke’s mother died when he was young. He was the first in his family to learn to read and began teaching sunday school at around 10 years old.
He writes in his essay In Search of Identity, his quest for African history began by reading the Bible.
“Reading the description of Christ as swarthy and with hair like sheep’s wool, I wondered why the church depicted him as blond and blue-eyed. Where was the hair like sheep’s wool? Where was the swarthy complexion? I looked at the map of Africa and I knew Moses had been born in Africa. How did Moses become so white? If he went down to Ethiopia to marry Zeporah, why was Zeporah so white? Who painted the world white? Then I began to search for the definition of myself and my people in relationship to world history, and I began to wonder how we had become lost from the commentary of world history.”
In spite of his brilliance as a young man, he was forced to drop out of school to help support his family. At age 17 he hopped a train to Harlem, New York– drawn there by hearing about the burgeoning literary scene and his frustrations living in the segregated south. For example, the libraries were Jim Crow (or operating under understood racial laws) and wouldn’t allow blacks. Once in New York he devoured the collection of African scholar Arthur Schomberg. He studied at both Columbia and New York University but didn’t earn degrees from either institutions.
He began his teaching career in the 1940’s at community centers in Harlem. By the late 1950’s he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York and eventually traveled to West Africa delivering lectures on African history in several institutions.
He earned his teaching license in the 1960’s in Long Island and, after teaching for 20 years, finally received his first classroom assignment in both Harlem and New York’s Head Start training program.
Clarke was brilliant and a hell raiser amongst scholars. In African People in World History he wrote Most of the world’s major religions and nearly every textbook have made serious efforts to interpret history without Africans playing a major role… The fact that civilization started with African people has been ignored, and the contributions that African people are now making to the world are minimized. In 1969, he joined the staff at Hunter College and helped establish a Black Studies program there, then later at Cornell.
Clarke authored six scholarly books, a grip of articles, he edited several anthologies of Black literature including Black American Short stories . He was co-founder of theHarlem Quarterly and was associate editor of Freedomways magazine. He married twice, having three children with his first wife. In 1998, he died of a heart attack at age 83.