Henrik Clarke: The Knowledge Revolutionary
by Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D.
Dr. John Henrik Clarke, our great and distinguished elder scholar/historian; the Dean of Black Studies; the master teacher; and the most scholastically influential individual in the area of Black Consciousness/Afrocentricity, passed on to ancestorhood Thursday, July 16, 1998, in New York City. Though he was totally blind towards the end, he still managed to lecture and write books. Here is an excerpt of an unpublished book I wrote on him, 'On My Journey Now: The Narrative and Works of Dr. John Henrik Clarke, The Knowledge Revolutionary':
"I was born from very poor landless peasants on January 1, 1915. They were sharecroppers in the backwoods of Union Springs, Alabama. My father had a dream that one day he wanted to own land. He wanted to leave this land to his son. He wanted to be an independent farmer. A storm that wrecked our house gave him the opportunity to move his family to a mill city called Columbus, Georgia. He worked in the mills and the brickyards, hoping to eventually earn the kind of money he could use to buy independent land. Of course, he never did. But thanks to a ten cents a week policy, the only free land he ever knew was the grave we buried him in. That was paid for, free and clear.
"My background would normally be looked at by both black and white sociologists as the one kind of background that would not shape me to be anything of consequence. My early orientation to history came from my great grandmother. We called her Mom Mary. She had witnessed the last slaves who arrived directly from Africa. She spoke of them and their inability to learn the English language immediately. She told me the story of the trials and tribulations of her family, our family, and of her husband who was sold to a slave-breeding farm in Virginia.
"After emancipation, she went into Virginia, spending three years trying to find him. She never found him, of course. She was the mother of my grand aunt, who was a midwife of my father's father.
"Nothing really shaped me to be a teacher of history in that immediate background, except that I learned to read early. I use to pick up the letters from the Post Office. I learned responsibility and was respected, and somewhat rewarded for shouldering responsibility at an early age. When we moved to the city, one of the uncles used to give me five cents a week in tribute to my industry in helping my mother, and all kinds of things of this nature.
"What set me in motion was when I learned to teach the junior class in Sunday school, and couldn't find the image of my own people in the Bible. They were nowhere to be found in the Sunday school lessons. I began to suspect that something had gone wrong in history. I see Moses going down to Ethiopia, where he marries Zipporah, Moses' wife, and she turns white. I see people going to the land of Kush, which is the present-day Sudan, and they got white. I see people going to Punt, which is present-day Somalia, and they got white. What are all these white people doing in Afrika? There were no Africans in Afrika, in the Sunday school lesson.
"My great grandmother kept telling me that everything in the Bible was the truth, and it was not to be questioned. That gave me a great dilemma, because I loved her almost to the point of making a deity out of her. I didn't want to be in conflict with her, but I was running into a conflict. I couldn't find black people in the land of black people. So, I began to search.
"One day while doing chores at a high school, there was a recitalist, and this recitalist had a book called The New Negro. I would keep his books and his coat because Spencer High School was so new they didn't have a coatroom. He was reciting to raise some funds for a curtain for the stage. They didn't have a curtain. So, I was holding his books. While doing my chore, I read an essay called, "The Negro Digs Up His Past." That was a key moment in my life. I made up my mind that we did have a history. For the first time, I read something on the ancient history of African people. I can't tell you how important that was to me.
"When I think about my people immediately after slavery, I often compare our mental state to now. We were better than we are now -- resisting better, believing more in ourselves than we are right now. Copping out less on ourselves than we are right now. Immediately after slavery, we began to build institutions, political parties, and businesses faster than we are doing right now. We need to study that period. We need to read W. E. B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction again. We need to read his essay on the Freedman's Bureau again. There’s a whole lot of things we need to reconsider.
"We need to reconsider the 19th Century black man and woman, who were tall in comparison to what we are right now. They made fewer excuses. They had more hardships, and they faced them better. They had something we don't have, they had fewer distractions: no television, no radio. They had their work, and the church was the main outlet. Spiritually, they held themselves together. Culturally, they held themselves together.
"The church was also the school. The church was the recreation center. The church was the place where you would go to look for a lady to court that might be your wife. The church was the center of the being of a people. The church was not a weekend thing. The church was an everyday thing.
"Our forced migration into this country helped to make this country what it is. We have a claim that's outstanding. That's going to have to be satisfied. We've contributed to the culture and to the direction of this country. We live in an American society that's now dying, and we can bring it alive, if we think it's worth being brought alive.
"With all of our faults and all the things that's crippling our development, we are a nation within a nation, looking for a nationality. Once we find that nationality, our relationship to Afrika, we will join others in marshaling our true strength, our people-ness, and our nation-ness once again. We'll stop answering to the term "minority." We will stop acting like a minority. We will stop feeling like a minority. We will know then, that we are world people.
"We must stop killing ourselves about belonging to mother countries not of our making. Languages not of our making. Stop worshipping gods not of our choosing, and realize that wherever we are on the face of the earth, we are an African people. No matter where our bodies are, our heartbeat, our future, our political being is in Afrika. We are an African people wherever we are on the face of the earth. We have to learn how to relax about being an African people. How to use it as a source of strength, not as a source of retreat or regret. We must wear it like a badge of honor, and contribute to it as though it was a new world religious order, which indeed is what it can be.
"As for my library, 10,000 volumes have already been given to the Woodruff Library Center at Clark Atlanta University, in Atlanta, Georgia, and some other libraries. In the event of my passing, all of the books that are not in the Woodruff Center, all of the African and African American, all of the relevant books, will be sent there. Where the Woodruff Library has duplicates, those books will go to the Africana Studies Center Library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. My children's books will go to Public School (PS) 121 at 140th Street and Eighth Avenue, in Harlem.
"I just hope the best use will be made of them, in as much as I have traveled over large portions of the world. I've collected books from different places, libraries and little bookstores in little known countries. I have books that cannot be bought again because they were published in like 500 editions, and when that edition was sold out, neither the publisher nor the author had enough money to get another edition out.
"I am preparing the audio and video tapes to be sent, first and foremost, to the audio and video division of the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, in Atlanta. Some are already gone. A duplicate copy of those tapes will go to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem. "Maybe one day there will be books of my papers published. That will be something that will be thought of later. I am limited in preparing for immortality. I think that my work is so unfinished, and I am so unready to leave. It is something I try not to let dwell on my mind too much. Inevitably, I know that everyone has an end, but I haven't planned mine as much as some people think I should.
"Ten, twenty-five, a hundred years from now, if African historians feel obliged to write about me, I hope they can say that he did the best he could to tell the truth. When he discovered that he was wrong, he corrected himself. He was committed to liberation, uplifting of his own people, and there's no evidence that he ever turned on his own advocacy of freedom and independence, or betrayed any aspects of that long freedom struggle.
"In regards to our precious young people, they are really the seeds of tomorrow's crop, and our hope for immortality rests with them. They owe it to themselves, and to us, to pick out the finest things among us as examples, follow these examples and improve upon them. They are the makers of tomorrow. We changed the world once. We'll change it again."
Kwaku Person-Lynn is on the faculty at California State University, Dominguez Hills in History and Africana Studies, and is the author of: FIRST WORD Black Scholars Thinkers Warriors.
Copyright 1998 Kwaku Person-Lynn