Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works

By Jackson, J. D. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works


Jackson, J. D., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Anna Swanston, Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works. Atlanta: I AM Unlimited Publishing, 2003.

In her timely book, Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works, Anna Swanston, Clarke's long-time secretary, fully and convincingly chronicles the miraculous rise from utter obscurity to international notoriety of the late and influential African American historian, John Henrik Clarke. Generously using Clarke's own words, Swanston provides interesting and much-needed insight into how Clarke, the son of a poverty-stricken Alabama sharecropper and a man who never received more than a seventh-grade formal education, greatly devoted himself to self-education and serious study. She describes how Clarke hoboed across the United States before settling in his beloved Harlem, New York for the remaining sixty or more years of his life.

It was while living and doing low-paying odd jobs in Harlem that Clarke received what the sixth of the eleven chapters of the book calls "the essence of an education". That "essence" came at the hands of some of the great Black minds, well-known and little-know. They included university-trained historians, like Willis N. Huggins, a Ph.D. and author of numerous works on African history; and William Leo Hansberry, a major influence in the push for historical accuracy regarding the history of Africa and her people. Others who Clarke numbered among his "mentors", included the noted journalist, historian, and prolific writer Joel A. Rogers; and the historian and author John G. Jackson, who Clarke called both "a mentor" and "a multi-genius".

Most central in Clarke's development as an intellect, Swanston writes, stood the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile and historian, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, whose huge collection of books, pamphlets, and art work regarding African (Black) people worldwide laid the foundation for the world-famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. Swanston quotes Clark in describing Schomburg's influence; "I thank Arthur A. Schomburg; for he is really responsible for what I am, and what value I have in the field of African history and the history of black people the world over," and "Arthur Schomburg literally trained me, not only to study African history and the history of black people the world over, but to teach history as well."

During his gradual rise to fame as a noted historian of what he called "African world history," Clarke traveled extensively across the continent of Africa, gaining first-hand knowledge about its people, its culture, and its past and present status in the world. Armed with that knowledge, he dedicated the rest of his life to improving the overall status of Black people (collectively called "Africans" by him) both inside and outside of Africa. Clark's life work was devoted to researching, interpreting, preserving, and promoting the history of African-descended people worldwide. Along the way, he befriended, admired, and advised such historic figures as Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana's first Black president); and wrote and lectured extensively about African world history. In the 1960s Clarke coordinated a CBS television production on the subject, and even became a well-respected college professor. Clarke is considered by many to be the "Father of Black Studies".

Swanston's book also includes an extensive list of Clarke's books, essays, short stories, poetry, book reviews, and magazine and journal interviews. Swanston includes insightfully details of Clarke, the man, and his times. Additionally, her book is jam-packed with partial and even full speeches of Clarke's perspective on some of the key issues in African world history. Clarke writes about the would-be feud between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois; and the tension between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey; and various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. Clarke even tells about his refusal to write smear books about Martin Luther King, Jr. …

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