“History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.” – John Henrik Clarke
Born a sharecropper’s son on this date in 1915, Clarke was a historian, professor, and a pioneer in the creation of Pan-African and Africana studies and instrumental in the founding of programs that were emulated throughout higher education beginning in the late 1960s.
“My mother, Willie Ella Mays Clarke, was a washerwoman for poor white folks in the area of Columbus, Georgia where the writer Carson McCullers once lived,” he said, noting that she never learned to read and write but aspired for her son to have that opportunity. Told in 3rd grade he should be a writer, he started studying toward that goal and moved to New York at age 18, where he developed his skills as both a writer and lecturer during the Great Depression years, particularly at the Harlem Writers' Workshop.
After serving 4 years in World War II, he co-founded the Harlem Quarterly magazine, and wrote numerous short stories and essays before moving into teaching and scholarly writing. While teaching at prestigious schools like Cornell and Columbia and at major universities in Africa, he founded several professional associations to support the study of black culture and authored 6 scholarly books. He also edited anthologies of writing by African Americans, as well as collections of his own short stories prior to his death in 1998. A champion for people finding and writing about their roots, he once noted, “A people's relationship to their heritage is the same as the relationship of a child to its mother.”
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