He was Professor of African World History and in 1969 founding chairman of the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Positions in academia
He also was the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Visiting Professor of African History at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. In 1968 along with the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association, Clarke founded the African Heritage Studies Association.
By the 1920s, the Great Migration and demographic changes had led to a concentration of African Americans living in Harlem. A synergy developed among the artists, writers and musicians and many figured in the Harlem Renaissance. They began to develop supporting structures of study groups and informal workshops to develop newcomers and young people.
Arriving in Harlem at the age of 18 in 1933, Clarke developed as a writer and lecturer during the Great Depression years. He joined study circles such as the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers’ Workshop. He studied history and world literature at New York University, at Columbia University and at the League for Professional Writers. He was an autodidact whose mentors included the scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.
In the post-World War II years, there was new artistic development, with small presses and magazines being founded and surviving for brief times. Writers and publishers continued to start new enterprises: Clarke was co-founder of the Harlem Quarterly (1949–51), book review editor of the Negro History Bulletin (1948–52), associate editor of the magazine, Freedomways, and a feature writer for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier.
Clarke taught at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1956 to 1958. Traveling in West Africa in 1958–59, he met Kwame Nkrumah, whom he had mentored as a student in the US, and was offered a job working as a journalist for the Ghana Evening News. He also lectured at the University of Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, including in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan.
Becoming prominent during the Black Power movement in the 1960s, which began to advocate a kind of black nationalism, Clarke advocated for studies on the African-American experience and the place of Africans in world history. He challenged the views of academic historians and helped shift the way African history was studied and taught. Clarke was “a scholar devoted to redressing what he saw as a systematic and racist suppression and distortion of African history by traditional scholars.” He accused his detractors of having Eurocentric views. His writing included six scholarly books and many scholarly articles. He also edited anthologies of writing by African Americans, as well as collections of his own short stories. In addition, he published general interest articles.
Besides teaching at Hunter College and Cornell University, Clarke founded professional associations to support the study of black culture. He was a founder with Leonard Jeffries and first president of the African Heritage Studies Association, which supported scholars in areas of history, culture, literature and the arts. He was a founding member of other organizations to support work in black culture: the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the African-American Scholars’ Council.
Legacy and honors
- 1985 – Faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University named the John Henrik Clarke Library after him.
- 1995 – Carter G. Woodson Medallion, Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.
- 2002 – Molefi Kete Asante listed Dr. John Henrik Clarke as one of his 100 Greatest African Americans.
- 2011 – Immortal Technique includes a short speech by Dr. Clarke on his album The Martyr. It is Track 13, which is entitled “The Conquerors”.
- A New Approach to African History (1967)
- The Boy Who Painted Jesus Black (1975)
- Editor, Malcolm X: Man and His Times (1991), an anthology of the activist’s writings
- Author and editor, Who Betrayed the African World Revolution?: And Other Speeches (1993)
- African People in World History (1993) (first of Black Classic Press’ Contemporary Lecture Series)
- Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism (reprinted 2011)