John Henrik Clarke: The Harlem Connection to the Founding of Africana Studies

By Carruthers, Jacob H. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2006 | Go to article overview

John Henrik Clarke: The Harlem Connection to the Founding of Africana Studies


Carruthers, Jacob H., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


John Henrik Clarke was the Presiding Elder of the Africana Studies discipline for three decades (from 1968 until his death in 1998). His 1969 election by popular acclamation as the first president of the African Heritage Studies Association (AHSA), an organization he founded and led, symbolizes the widespread acceptance of his leadership. No less significant was his appointment to the faculty of the Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department at Hunter College, again by popular demand. Another indication of the recognition of his peerless championship was the naming of the library of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, the John Henrik Clarke Library. He also taught at the Center in the "early founding years" of that program. (1)

Professor Clarke's disciples and students (both formal and informal) include many who were with him when he led a group of younger scholars and students in a confrontation with the leadership of the African Studies Association (ASA) and the eventual secession from the organization leading to the formation of AHSA. (2)

His early followers included Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Cheke Unwache, Shelby Smith, and James Turner who appropriately summarized the significance of Dr. Clarke's role in the founding of AHSA as "that organization which positioned him at the center of the evolution of the Black Studies Movement." (3) Turner continued, "Professor Clarke is unquestionably one of the principle intellectual and academic mentors in Africana Studies." (4)

Professor Clarke's leadership was also widely acknowledged by the critics of the discipline. Henry Louis Gates identified him as the "great paterfamilias of the Afrocentric movement." (5) Harold Cruise, another critic, asserted:

Clarke is an Africanist of longstanding, one of the few devoted American
Negro specialists in African history outside university cloisters. This
distinction ... has earned him the title of a recognized prophet of
African and Afro-American redemption. (6)

In view of the significant intellectual role played by Professor Clarke, one remarkable fact stands out: the savant was what Dr. Earl E. Thorpe called a historian "without portfolio." (7) In other words, at the time John Henrik Clarke was elevated to the exalted position of Presiding Elder of Africana Studies, he had been "self-educated," and in terms of formal education, he had "barely finished grammar school." (8)

"Self-educated" scholars are a vital part of the tradition among intellectuals of African descent living in the United States. The recorded works of the leaders, in providing instruction for the African descent population, go back to the latter years of the eighteenth century. These works include those of Richard Allen, Prince Hall, and Absalom Jones. (9) The nineteenth-century intellectuals kept the tradition going, and they included David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Martin Delany. (10) The tradition of self-educated scholars resumed after the Civil War. Led by John E. Bruce and Arthur Schomburg, who were joined by others, they advanced the African history project in the 1920s during the period called the "Harlem Renaissance," which ran parallel to the peak of the Garvey movement. John Clarke arrived in New York a few years after the decline of those great movements.

A vital part of this tradition was intergenerational mentoring. The African Lodge has been a mentoring institution from the time of its founding in 1787 to the present. Most of the nineteenth-century leaders belonged to the "Prince Hall Masons." (11) Another indication of the direct and indirect mentoring process is found in the works of the various self-educated scholars. David Walker praised the teachings of his elder, Reverend Richard Allen. (12) Maria Stewart and Henry Highland Garnet in turn evoked the example of David Walker. (13) The mentoring chain can be found in the reflections of Arthur Schomburg who was inspired by John Bruce and Alexander Crummell. …

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