Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works.
In her timely book, Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works, Anna Swanston, Clarke's long-time secretary, fully and convincingly chronicles the miraculous rise from utter obscurity to international notoriety of the late and influential African American historian, John Henrik Clarke. Generously using Clarke's own words, Swanston provides interesting and much-needed insight into how Clarke, the son of a poverty-stricken Alabama sharecropper and a man who never received more than a seventh-grade formal education, greatly devoted himself to self-education and serious study. She describes how Clarke hoboed across the United States before settling in his beloved Harlem, New York for the remaining sixty or more years of his life.
It was while living and doing low-paying odd jobs in Harlem that Clarke received what the sixth of the eleven chapters of the book calls "the essence of an education". That "essence" came at the hands of some of the great Black minds, well-known and little-know. They included university-trained historians, like Willis N. Huggins, a Ph.D. and author of numerous works on African history; and William Leo Hansberry, a major influence in the push for historical accuracy regarding the history of Africa and her people. Others who Clarke numbered among his "mentors", included the noted journalist, historian, and prolific writer Joel A. Rogers; and the historian and author John G. Jackson, who Clarke called both "a mentor" and "a multi-genius".
Most central in Clarke's development as an intellect, Swanston writes, stood the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile and historian, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, whose huge collection of books, pamphlets, and art work regarding African (Black) people worldwide laid the foundation for the world-famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. Swanston quotes Clark in describing Schomburg's influence; "I thank Arthur A. Schomburg; for he is really responsible for what I am, and what value I have in the field of African history and the history of black people the world over;" and "Arthur Schomburg literally trained me, not only to study African history and the history of black people the world over, but to teach history as well."
During his gradual rise to fame as a noted historian of what he called "African world history," Clarke traveled extensively across the continent of Africa, gaining first-hand knowledge about its people, its culture, and its past and present status in the world. Armed with that knowledge, he dedicated the rest of his life to improving the overall status of Black people (collectively called "Africans" by him) both inside and outside of Africa. Clark's life work was devoted to researching, interpreting, preserving, and promoting the history of African-descended people worldwide. Along the way, he befriended, admired, and advised such historic figures as Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana's first Black president); and wrote and lectured extensively about African world history. In the 1960s Clarke coordinated a CBS television production on the subject, and even became a well-respected college professor. Clarke is considered by many to be the "Father of Black Studies".
Swanston's book also includes an extensive list of Clarke's books, essays, short stories, poetry, book reviews, and magazine and journal interviews. Swanston includes insightfully details of Clarke, the man, and his times. Additionally, her book is jam-packed with partial and even full speeches of Clarke's perspective on some of the key issues in African world history. Clarke writes about the would-be feud between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois; and the tension between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey; and various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. Clarke even tells about his refusal to write smear books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (despite the large sums of money he was offered). The book also includes some of Clark's views on the past and current status of Africa (called by Clarke, "the world's richest continent" and the birthplace of both humanity and human civilization). Swanston's book also provides Clarke's historically-based prediction of the future of Africa and her children worldwide as determined by the choices that both make--"pan-Africanism or perish."
The author further notes Clarke's emphasis on the purpose of education--"to make people responsible handlers of power"; the need for the study and use of history for African (Black) people worldwide to "find themselves on the map of human geography," which he linked with another author's words that "What we do for ourselves depends on what we know of ourselves and what we accept about ourselves"; and Clarke's heart-felt and unyielding devotion to and promotion of pan-Africanism as expressed in these words: "We must unite with African people the world over, and create the concept of an African world union, if we are to remain on this earth."
Swanston states that, unlike many of the current would-be African-centered historians, Clarke willingly conceded that both he and his long-time friend, noted Ethiopian-born Egyptologist Yosef ben-Jochanan "were not the pioneers in this field [of African world history]. We recognize the fact that we stand in the footprints of giants, who walked this lonely road and died unrecognized by the world." Clarke further states, "When I looked again at those great men and women, who have gone on before me, it is they who taught me, through their literature." One of Clarke's quotes concludes, "I learned that we must continually look back, in order to look forward, and we must draw samples from our revolutionary past, in order to exist in the world of tomorrow."
Occasionally, throughout her book, Swanston provides the reader with short biographical sketches of herself--when she first heard of and, eventually, met and interviewed with Clarke to be his secretary; how he shared little-known aspects of his life with her; how he inspired her to learn more about her Caribbean and African family roots; how she learned to appreciate greatly Clarke's photographic memory and skillful storytelling; and the dogged effort she put into organizing his mail, his many files and his untold stacks of books in his office. Many of those books, catalogued by her, Clarke donated to Clark-Atlanta University in Georgia prior to his death. Collectively, over 20,000 books, they make up the "John Henrik Clarke Collection."
Swanston also supplies the necessary background information to various portions of her book that better enables the reader to understand and to follow both sudden and gradual shifts, and steadfast stands, in Clarke's thinking regarding many of the heart-felt concepts that he embraced. Some of Clark's strongly held views included opinions on the purpose of education and history in the twenty-first century for African (Black) people; the role of the missionary in African conquest; and the question of whether and how can African people save themselves.
Anna Swanston's book Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works is a must-read for anyone longing to gain a better understanding of ways to improve their world from an African-centered perspective. Her book is both a biography of a worthy subject and a much-needed primer on African world history, sprinkled liberally with John Henrik Clarke's thought-provoking and ear-catching lectures. If Clarke could see the fine job that Anna Swanston has done in the form of her book about him, perhaps he would smile and acknowledge that his secretary has followed one of his most profound directives: "Do your best work." Dr. John Henrik Clarke: His Life, His Words, His Works is Anna Swanston's "best work."
J. D. Jackson, Historian living in Alabama