Dr. John Henrik Clarke—20th Century Griot by Dr. Marimba Anni
The life of John Henrik Clarke exemplifies those values upon which the victorious movement of our people depends. His work and his character together have created a symbol that inspires greatness.
Born in rural Union Springs, Alabama, he was reared in Columbus, Georgia at a time when American racism was not subtle, but overtly oppressive. His intellectual curiosity and initiative were resources which allowed him to circumvent the authorities In a society which denied to people of African descent library privileges which those of European descent enjoyed. This proved to be the beginning of a productive life in which there would be countless hours spent In libraries all over the world.
In these early days research into the African past was indeed an uphill struggle for several reasons:
- As a Black man, he was denied access to most facets of the scholarly community
Africa herself was not considered worthy of serious study, (except
perhaps by anthropologists in service to their colonial sponsors; but
certainly not worthy of the attention of an historian)
- Most African-Americans, philosophically, were not ready to embrace their Africaness.
It was in these times that courage, and determination were needed to study African history, and what kept young Brother Clarke going was the conviction that he had come from a great people and so was himself capable of great things. What better example for our students!
The life of John Henrick Clarke illuminates the special way in which stature and humility combine in African-American life. He reminds us that these characteristics are not opposites for us. His humble beginnings are for him a strength which has helped him through Harlem's own unique depression, as he and other Black writers lived a precarious existence during the decade of the late 30's and early 40's. He is special to us also because he has never "left" us to become part of a distant elite.
It is a testament to Brother Clarke's brilliance and intellectual independence that he has achieved such a formidable degree of learning primarily as a result of his own effort through informal means. His vast knowledge has come from intensely motivated research, long hours spent in libraries, and voracious reading. What better model for our students!
Inspired by the knowledge of a great past, he set out first to learn, then to teach others as he continued to learn. His success as an educator is an example for all of us who would seek to ignite the flame of a burning desire to know the truth among those whose minds and hearts are in our trust.
He has taught us that Pan-African scholarship does not have to be, indeed, cannot afford to be uncommitted . . . uninvolved. His life continues to be that of an impassioned warrior. It is because of his efforts along with those of a handful of other dedicated scholar-activists that African studies is now a part of the American academy. We must diligently work to establish it there permanently, if indeed we want to pay tribute to John Henrik Clarke
In this regard, his life also says something of greater importance. We see in his life his achievement that the system" academic or otherwise must not be allowed to define our standards or to limit our horizons. His life demonstrates to us what can be accomplished outside of the system as well. It says that we must always determine our own symbols, images and values. We must build our own institutions, and value them when they are deserving. He has shown us that while African Studies can be academic, in part its essence will never be.
Perhaps no other member of our community embodies the links of the Pan-African world as coherently John Henrik Clarke has lived Pan-Africanism, and in his personality, his work and his travels, he brings together people of African throughout the world. His concrete involvement in over a dozen international organizations, is a testament to his personal commitment to Pan-African unity and to the recognition and fellowship afforded him by Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. At the same time he continues to spearhead struggles in his own community of Harlem. Indeed, he connects microcosm to macrocosm.
"Professor Clarke," as we call him, has always been and continues to be constantly accessible and responsible to those of us who need him. His home is open to those who seek his wisdom. His cooperation is available for those in the community who ask even to his own detriment, he has difficulty saying no. His life has been one of participation and involvement in the organizations, battles and continuous struggle of his people. And his personal being is an expression of African Humanism.
His life presents an image which has become a symbol of the qualities we wish to claim, to emulate, and to engender: commitment, self-reliance, communalism, intelligence, scholarly excellence, determination, discipline, conviction and achievement.
The life of John Henrik Clarke is one that should serve as an inspiration to students everywhere, and so we, on behalf of the Pan-African community, take this opportunity to establish a scholarship in his name, so that they may be reminded of the implications of his life and work for time to come.
—Read at the Luncheon Tribute to Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Saturday, September 13, 1983.
Prof. Marimba Anni teaches Africana Studies in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York.