John Henrik Clarke

By Boyd, Herb | American Visions, October-November 1998 | Go to article overview

John Henrik Clarke


Boyd, Herb, American Visions


"When a griot dies, it is like having a library burned to the ground," said historian Leonard Jeffries after the passing of John Henrik Clarke on July 16. "But Dr. Clarke was a master griot, and so our loss is immeasurable." Clarke's death unleashed outpouring of praise for the 83-year-old scholar and for his peerless and inestimable contributions to black studies and Pan-Africanist thought. There is much to acclaim: prolific research that focused on the lives of such leaders as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Cheikh Anta Diop; the wise and urgent counsel of his many lectures; and more than 25 books that he wrote or edited, revealing every sinew of African and African-American history, culture and politics.

But the force that propelled Clarke the academic -- his commitment to restoring the missing pages of history -- has at times eclipsed the dedication and imagination that he displayed as an author and champion of fiction.

First, Clarke was a poet, then he was an author, and then, when his own muse commuted from fiction to history and criticism, he became a generous, insightful editor, gathering short-story writers -- well known and yet to be known -- into anthologies through which a canon could be recognized.

James Turner, the director of Africana studies at Cornell University, was introduced to Clarke's work in the 1960s, through HARYOU-ACT, an antipoverty agency in Harlem. Clarke was the director of its Heritage Teaching Program. In time, Turner came to identify Clarke as "one of the principal intellectual and academic mentors in Africana studies. He is an incomparable `significant other' for those of our generation. Dr. Clarke was instrumental in producing many widely circulated documents and papers on African world history and on African-American history. His papers provided primary reference sources that were not usually available in the established literature, in either world history or American history. These popularly read documents had great impact on the youth, inspiring them and the community in general."

The fact is that, for Clarke, it was fantasy that awakened his lifelong relationship with words. "When I was in the third grade, I was assigned a composition to write," he recalled in a speech at Cornell University in 1990. "I was working before and after school, running errands for Army officers, so I was sleepy and didn't have my composition ready. I got Lip with a blank piece of paper and read a complete fabrication. I made the whole thing up.

"The teacher said, `John, hand that in. This is a good example of fine writing.' I didn't have anything on the paper, and she decided that instead of punishing me, she would encourage me to pursue a career as a writer.

"I had never thought about writing until then, but then I began to seriously think about it."

Like many beginning writers, Clarke's first creations were lyrical -- namely poetry and song -- and they explored ideas with which he was most familiar. His hometown of Columbus, Ga., provided a rich landscape of events and personalities to spark his imagination. Moreover, he sought teachers in all of the places he inhabited: while a boy in Georgia, from his classrooms; after he moved to Harlem (in 1933, at age 18), from the historians and writers and librarians who shared his curiosity and his vision; and from the books that he read voraciously.

And he wrote. His first published short story, "On the Other Side" (1938), appeared in the National Urban League's journal, Opportunity. His first book, a collection of poetry titled Rebellion and Rhyme (Dicker Press), was published in 1948.

Two of Clarke's short stories, "Santa Claus Is a White Man" (1939) and "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black" (1940), are deemed his most popular. Both were inspired by his Southern boyhood. In "Santa Claus Is a White Man," young Randolph Johnson is on his way Christmas shopping with a quarter when a gang of white boys confronts him.

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