John Henrik Clarke was born in Union Springs, Ala., to a family of sharecroppers. When a storm destroyed the family’s home, they moved to Columbus, Ga. Clarke was a good student, but he had to leave school after the eighth grade in order to work. In 1933, he rode a freight train to New York where he settled in Harlem and worked odd jobs to support himself. Clarke had become interested in black history from listening to his great-grandmother’s stories, and he made use of the New York public libraries to further his education. He also joined the Harlem History Club which met weekly for lectures and discussions. Clarke began writing poetry and short stories in the 1930s. His first published short story, “On the Other Side,” appeared in Opportunity magazine in 1938. Clarke served in the US Army Air Forces from 1941 to 1945. After his discharge, he returned to Harlem and began taking classes at New York University. Clarke was active in the Harlem Writers Guild and published a book of poetry in 1948. He was also a founder and editor of the Harlem Quarterly. In 1957 and 1958, he published a series of articles, ”Lives of the Great African Chiefs,” in The Pittsburgh Courier. In the summer of 1958, Clarke traveled to Africa, where he visited Ghana and Nigeria and wrote for the Ghana Evening News. When he returned to New York that fall, he published articles based on his observations during the trip.
Clarke was a pioneer in the movement to develop African studies programs. He began teaching at the New School for Social Research in 1956. Clarke served as the director of the Heritage Teaching Program of Haryou-Act (Harlem Youth Associated Community Teams) from 1964 to 1969. From 1967 to 1970, Clarke taught African history at Cornell University. He began teaching at Hunter College in 1970 and continued there until 1985. In the 1960s and 1970s, Clarke edited collections of works by and about black writers and activists. He was an editor at Freedomways magazine from 1962 until 1983. In the 1990s, Clarke published several books of essays on topics related to the Pan-Africa movement, also called Afrocentrism. In his later years, Clarke suffered health problems but continued lecturing and studying. He was awarded the Carter G. Woodson Scholar’s Medallion in 1995 by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In 1996, his short story “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” was filmed as part of an HBO production, America’s Dreams. Clarke died in New York of a heart attack at age eighty-three.
John Henrik Clarke wrote poems and short stories about the experience of being a black American in the twentieth century. His nonfiction includes essays on topics related to the Pan-Africa movement, also called Afrocentrism.
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Photo courtesy of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts, Auburn University.
Last updated on May 30, 2008.