On my journey now: the narrative and works of Dr. John Henrik Clarke, the knowledge revolutionary.
In such a collective work as this, there are many to thank. The research alone involved people from all over the country who contributed in one form or another. It begins with the Creator, always. Isidra, my life partner, thank you for being there every second of everyday in so many ways. To my sons, for allowing me to have peace when I needed it, and making the honor roll, in spite of my not always being there. As long as I have breath, you and momma always have my love. John Henrik Clarke, around whom everything here centers, thank you for having faith that I could do "high quality work," and the generosity and time you gave to me. I am especially grateful for you opening up your home so that I could live and work inside your soul, which will never die. To Sybil Williams- Clarke, if ever Dr. Clarke had a loving and protective guardian angel on this earth, you would have to be the one. I guess that's why he married you before he went home. Thank you for the health advice.
To Chiri Fitzpatrick and Ann Swanson, Dr. Clarke's former secretaries, I could not have made the first step without your diligent efforts in organizing his files and aiding me in my work. Andre Elizee, of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who oversees the John Henrik Clarke Papers, your efforts are as monumental as the building in which you work. Also to Betty Odadashian, of the Schomburg, for your valuable assistance. To Miki Goral, of the University of California, Los Angeles, University Research Library, you have to be one of the greatest reference librarians in the country. Faye Phinsee-Clack and Naomi Moy of the California State University, Dominguez Hills Library, thank you so much for your valuable help. Charles Freeney, of the Robert Woodruff Library, Clark Atlanta University (where Dr. Clarke donated 10,000 titles from his personal library), thank you. Also, to the staffs at the following libraries for their extraordinary assistance: A.C. Bilbrew Library in Los Angeles; University of Southern California--John Leavey Library and Doheny Library; Loyola Marymount University Library; The John Henrik Clarke Africana Studies Library at Cornell University; and The Mooreland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.
Kimili Anderson, editor, Journal of Negro Education, thank you for your assistance, and you are still a great word person. James Fugate, again for the guidance, and David Boarman and Capril Bonner Thomas of Eso Won Books, in Los Angeles, for the research assistance. Ora Mobley, thank you for those rare but special references. You are a historical treasure yourself. Obadele Williams for being Dr. Clarke's greatest archivist. To Nathan Adams, of Ethnic News Watch database of SoftLine Information, Inc., your help and sharing the disks with me was more important than I could ever express in plain words.
It is rare when the scientific and space community support such an effort as this book, but it happened. The Space and Communications African American Network at Hughes Aircraft, in El Segundo, California, financed my trip to New York to work with Dr. Clarke. These special people are: Michael O. Smith, Chair, Bonnie D. Clark, Dr. Ronald E. Fountain, Geneva L. Dorsey, Donna M. Williams-Hale, Edna G. Merlo, Lorraine M. Johnson, William L. Garner, Eugene Robertson, Donald and Karen White, Travis G. Hicks, Jimmie Mitchell, LaRon V. Doucet, Roxanne M. McCrumby, Billie Carter Miles, Jr., Shirley J. Caldwell, Desalyn M. Stevenson, Chris N. Goodson, Hanna P. Starr, Kathy L. Quinn, Ward E. Martin, Denise Echols, Ronella Rose, Sophia L. McCord, Larry L. Dennis, A. David Stuart, Leonore B. Alex, Melvin L. Thomas, Beverly A. Barbee, V. Gail West, June S. Demps, Alice M. Hawkins, Sharon Pyne, Sharlotte A. Powell, JoAnn Fountain, Cole S. Smith and Rhonda D. Goins.
Included are some good friends who gave invaluable assistance, suggestions, ideas and encouragement. S. Pearl Sharp, thank you for that great idea. Yemi Toure, can't wait to see your book on the elders. Nzinga Heru, thank you for setting up a couple of the interviews. Barbara Eleanor Adams, thank you for that great book of yours, John Henrik Clarke: The Early Years.
Thank you Bill Tiernan of the Virginia Pilot for permission to use the photograph of Dr. Clarke for the cover.
Wesley Snipes, thank you for demonstrating that a highly celebrated actor does not have to lose his soul in Hollywood, and that through your company, Amen Ra Films, you could produce such a masterpiece: John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk, and for participating in this book. Thank you, brother.
Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D.
Foreward: A Sacred Oracle in Harlem
I remember when I was living in the Bronx, my wife at the time was taking classes at Hunter College. Every now and then she would come home and talk about this teacher, this "really deep brother," whose class she just loved. Wondering if he was a teacher "teacher," or just some suave handsome brother with a good rap, mackin' in classrooms full of beautiful sisters searching for a sense of self-worth and a solution to black depravity, I thought I better go down and check this teacher out. My wife told me he held open classes. Even if I wasn't registered, I could sit in. "SIT IN? You mean even though I'm not enrolled, I can still sit in on his class?" "Yes!" she said, "but you better get there early if you want a seat. And another thing, if you do come, you don't know me."
I recall the day I actually attended the class and saw this teacher for the first time. Here I was expecting a tall, really handsome, fresh pressed dashiki-wearing-brother with some beautiful beaded necklace he got from the "motherland" swinging across the front of his chest like a hypnotist's pendulum.
What a surprise! In walks this short, medium built, balding man with the skin color of a tootsie roll, wearing what looked to be one of his Sunday school suits back in the day. He was carrying an old, I mean old looking briefcase in one hand, and even older looking books in the other. He was cool, though. Very cool. He reminded me of the men I used to see in the local barbershop in the Griffith Park section of Orlando, Florida.
They'd sit around the shop talking and playing checkers. Debating. Even though I didn't always know what they were talking about, I did like the way they said it, even if they did "talk funny." One of them always gave me a gift: a quarter, some candy or some soda water. Though I couldn't always predict which gift I'd get from time to time, it really didn't matter. Whatever it was, I knew it would be sweet to the pallet, yummy to the tummy. I always felt safe around those men.
I said to myself, "Could this man, this 'teacher,' be like those men from the barber shop?" And as if from my mouth to God's ears, Professor Clarke spoke, "Awwright now, let's get to it." From that moment on, not only could you hear a pin drop, but you taunted the deafness resulting from the thunderous explosions of brain cells being pummeled into submission by all the 'bombs he kept dropping.' Just like in the barbershop, but better. On top of all that, he talked funny too.
For the next year I attended his classes. Sometimes I did the homework and took the tests. Hell, I'd even show up when my wife couldn't make it. I would update her as to what new bombshell Professor Clarke dropped on us this time. Now you might say, "Wow! Wesley was making movies, and still taking Professor Clarke's classes too? A movie star hanging with the grassroots folks!" I wish I could say I was "that deep." The truth of the matter is, I wasn't working that much in movies. I had only done two, and it still didn't get me off the Number 4 and 5 trains. I had plenty of idle time on my hands.
Fortunately, I had some background in African and African Caribbean Studies. The lessons taught by Professor Clarke didn't cause a complete and total sensory overload. But he sure rocked the boat. I remember in the middle of a heated discussion about the disunity among people of African descent, based on language diversity and this strange psychosis that makes us think our local accent somehow affords us a higher position on the "shit stick." Professor Clarke interrupted and said, "Well, if nothing else unites us ...racism will."
"What?" a student said. "It's racism that got us in the condition we're in now. How can racism possibly bring black people together?" Professor Clarke replied, "Cause if we don't wake up soon and realize we're in the same boat, things are gonna get sooo bad ...we ain't gonna have no choice but to come together, or perish."
Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees, this was the kind of profound statement that could only come from years and years of study and deep meditation. In that one moment, Professor Clarke waylaid any questions I had about who and what kind of man he was. The barbershop of my youth had become his classroom. This time it wasn't soda water, candy or a quarter that would please me. This time, it would be spiritual insight and cultural fortitude conferred on me by the quintessential example of African genius. Funny, we didn't have to go across the ocean to that far away land to find the Great Oracle. The Oracle was right here in Harlem.
Professor Clarke taught us to think. He forced us to exercise that brain of ours in honor of grand mamahs and grand bahbahs for their love and sacrifice. He taught that not only did Africans give the world the first concept of civilization, but that they also left us a spiritually grounded super computer built into our genetic make up. That if given the right information, and some well-trained technicians to keep it running, we could remedy any problem it encounters; anywhere, any time, any day. He taught that not only is reading fundamental, but it is economically sound. It can directly affect your living condition. This, I can truly bear witness to.
In the myths of the ages, when a person went to see the Oracle, usually it was to get a view of one's future destiny. Since Professor Clarke has been teaching, pilgrims from the four corners of the earth, well, maybe not the four corners of the earth, but certainly the five boroughs of New York City, have come to seek guidance from this "good ole southern boy with a photographic memory and the heart of a lion."
If my experience with visiting him is indicative of the many who studied under him, then I can tell you this. This Oracle is not gonna tell you who you gonna be. He's gonna tell you who you are: deans, professors, dancers, doctors, nurses, statesmen, writers, preachers and world leaders, and yes, even actors.
In the summer of 1996, I was asked a question about the kind of legacy I wanted to leave; something that would last long after I'm gone; something that would reflect my full gratitude for all my many blessings, and mean something. I knew that there have been many great actors and many great movies spawned from the African experience, but like any thing that's entertaining, unless it is truly unique, then "it," like everything else, will soon be forgotten.
After a few nights of meditation, it came to me. I've had the good fortune of being graced by some of the most prolific minds coming from the African Experience, but others missed out. These giants should be remembered not only as legends of street corner stories, but as they were. How they looked. How they thought and what they said, in their own words. So I went to video tape. Without wavering, I knew the first one should be Dr., Professor John Henrik Clarke.
By his grace and that of God, the professor sat with me, St. Claire Bourne, Lou Potter, Professor Anderson Thompson and Sis Kamiko-san for over 12 hours. We recorded every word, every moment, every tear and every smile. It is now available for the world to see.
It is said that what we are today is the culmination of experiences we've had in the past. Well, one day I went to see a "teacher" and found an African man: cool, calm and cute to the ladies, with a super computer in his head. I found the Sacred Oracle, right there in Harlem. His name was John Henrik Clarke.
Introduction: The Great Elephant
Dr. John Henrik Clarke (left) being interviewed by Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D. (right)
"I think that my work is so unfinished and I am so unready to leave." Those were the words John Henrik Clarke said in our last interview. A man who had produced and accomplished so much that it is unmeasurable in standard terms, brought my mind to a conscious halt. First, it was the passion, the pain, the emotion he displayed while speaking. He seemed like a man tormented. Second, as I reflected on it afterwards, I sat astonished at the profound humbleness of this man-scholar whom I loved, as he made this simple, statement about his life's endeavors. Now that his capacity for work was limited, due to age and health, he was impatient to see his lifelong goals come to fruition: the progress and unity of Afrikan people around the world, and the incorporation of global Afrikan history and culture into general thought and into the educational curricula.
Those last words, which hung over me like a dreary cloud as I left New York, stayed on my mind as I rode the bus to JFK airport. The ride back to Los Angeles this time seemed much longer than the ride to New York. It reminded me of a 24-hour flight back to the United States from Viet Nam. At that time, I knew I was leaving one physical war, but I also knew that I was re-entering a war waged against Black people. At least that's the way it seemed at the time, in 1968. That was not a joyful feeling, just as it was not one now, even though both times I should have been overjoyed. All the way home, I tried to figure out how I was going to get out of the funk I left New York with, so that I could sit down in front of my computer and put together all the material I had gathered.
Here was this man who had probably influenced more young minds than any other American Afrikan scholar today, and who was not a made-up media darling touted by the Euro-American press, who had not benefited from large research budgets or staffs, but who had nevertheless built his reputation from the soil and toil of meticulous and elegant historical works, in and out of the class room. Included in his impressive repertoire of activities, and his being a founding member of several organizations and publications, are the many battles he engaged in regarding equity for global Afrikan scholarship and its scholars, and his numerous lectures and writings. Here was an Afrikan man so accomplished, yet still so willing to do much more.
On my arrival home, after centering from the high and low I was on from being back in Harlem for the first time in over twenty years, working with Dr. Clarke, reality began to set in. I could think with more clarity. There, I had walked the streets of Harlem, heard the sounds, ridden the subway and grooved with the rhythm of the place that is rightfully called the capital of Black America. I had spent hours in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and 135th Street, going through the John Henrik Clarke Papers, and being overwhelmed. Here, back on the West Coast, I thought about seeing Dr. Clarke being surrounded by several young students at the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles, and how they idolized him.
I thought about all those people who claimed him as their mentor. I thought about the phone constantly ringing at his home from people all over the country checking on him. I thought about all of the young and mature scholars who said that Dr. Clarke was their source of encouragement and enlightenment. I thought about a friend who said, "Listening to Dr. Clarke changed my life."
When I began to put all that together, along with several other thoughts and memories, it reminded me of the effect the Autobiography of Malcolm X had on people. I have never seen a book that transformed the thought patterns of so many. Actually, lives were changed because of that book. I had not seen that kind of reaction before or since until I contemplated the large sample of the many people Dr. Clarke had touched. This was made manifest later at his memorial service in New York, which attracted more people than had been seen in Harlem, in one place, for decades.
Thinking of him reminded me of a point he would frequently bring up. Practically all Black people in America are born into, grow up in, and must mentally, culturally and spiritually respond to the multi-dimensional perspective of the people who currently control the flow of information, values, and social ethics in this country. The educational institutions, through which Blacks receive their first formal instruction, are philosophically and pedagogically dominated by those same people, who also oversee the mass media, whether it is printed, electronic, focused on entertainment or part of the world wide web.
If an Afrikan people are influenced and dominated long enough by this one perspective (Eurocentric), which is fundamentally different than the people's own, then those people are going to embrace and desire the customs, traditions and habits of this overarching sector more than they will their own historical substance. What makes this especially troublesome is that what will be embraced and imitated are those same Eurocentric people who evolved from a history of initiating chattel slavery, oppression and brutality as an effective means of enriching themselves, in association with the denigration of whole Afrikan societies, a whole continent, and whole histories of Afrikan enterprise. In effect, we, as Afrikan people, will be taught to honor and respect those who have dishonored and raped us.
Dr. Clarke emphasized that against that Eurocentric construction, a relentless intellectual war must be waged. He taught that in time and history, individuals will come along who will upset this entire process. Their spoken and written words, their activist demeanor, and their ability to teach and encourage others to think for themselves will allow a pause long enough for us to see that there is another perspective to be investigated. Through this revelation, the debilitating and invisible haze that we have been under all our lives can be blown away with the enlightened knowledge that evolves from our own rich history, culture and wisdom. These master teachers will show us there is no legitimate reason to think of our own heritage as inferior. When the facts of history are seriously analyzed, what becomes clear is that we have been lied to by dishonest scholars in order to build themselves up by keeping us down. This effort is tragically also propagated by unbalanced scholars of color.
Further, through this thinking one arrives at the consciousness that the parent civilization of all humanity advanced from one's own Afrikan initiative. That is mind shattering. To learn that it was from one's own people, originally, that science, mathematics, philosophy, religion, systematic agriculture, architecture, and a host of other gifts, were brought to the world, is life changing. Such is the impact of these warriors. Their numbers will increase and their teachings will eventually overwhelm the miseducation of Afrikan people.
It will be gratifying and triumphant to see this global Afrikan information spreading throughout the nation and the world, with nobody able to stop it. No leader will be identified who can eliminate it, because it will be like rain. It will drop everywhere, fulfilling the reality that an aware people can never be controlled or oppressed. Dr. Clarke was himself one of that rare breed: a warrior and master teacher; a conductor who drove the train toward our growing knowledge of self and worth in the world.
The decision to do this book on Dr. Clarke did not evolve easily. I first had to convince him. When I brought up the idea, sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles, I thought he would approve it instantly. To my surprise, however, he was both hesitant and reluctant. He said, "There's already too much stuff out there." I had to demonstrate to him that there was nothing out there like this proposed book; that a narrative, with the totality of his works, had never been published. After pitching my point to him, he was silent for a long time and I prepared myself for a major letdown since this was something I really wanted to do. Suddenly, the silence was broken and I got my second surprise. "Well", he said, "We'll see how it goes." We had a good relationship then, but after that it became beyond beautiful.
Once we got over that hurdle, it was like walking in the dark, not knowing exactly where I was going but knowing I had to keep moving. I had already done a first interview with Dr. Clarke in 1987, when he came to speak at the "Afrikan People's Conference," at Compton Community College, coordinated by Dr. Billie Jo Moore, in Compton, California.
Right after that lecture, I was able to interview him on audio and videotape. At that time, I did not know a lot about him, but I had read some of his works, so I was a little familiar with his point of view. After that first interview, however, I knew there was more to this man than I could immediately comprehend. What followed was the urge to interview him every time he came to Los Angeles. That turned out to be seven different sessions, spanning up to 1997. I knew that some of the interviews were for my radio program, a field I was in at the time, but even after that ended, I continued to interview him without really knowing why. Perhaps it was the simple need of wanting to preserve his knowledge and wisdom as best I could, or maybe it was the same motivation I had prior to radio, building a library for my sons. I didn't know.
At some point, and I am not exactly sure when, it dawned on me that maybe there was enough of his recorded words to make a book, so that his information and works could be widely disseminated and preserved forever. One of the things I had heard said several times, from others interested in increasing their knowledge, and who enjoy reading books by global Afrikan scholars, is that sometimes the written material seemed too complex. That some of the books were too hard to digest. I understand that from the perspective of a writer, and reader.
The transcripts from his interview tapes fulfilled what I was hoping would happen; the essence of his knowledge, wisdom and life experiences emerged in plain language so that everyone could read the material and not have to scratch their heads, run to a dictionary, or call a friend to find out what such and such meant.
It has always been a curiosity of mine that if someone wants to be an effective scholar or teacher, what good is the information they disseminate if most people cannot understand it? It is true that in most American universities, in order for faculty to receive tenure, meaning permanent employment, that individual faculty member must do what is a prevailing theme in academia: "Publish or perish." If you do not have published what are considered scholarly books, then you must get published what are called "refereed" scholarly journal articles. That means the articles must be read and positively evaluated by a designated number of other scholars before being published.
Dr. Clarke was a tenured faculty member at Hunter College in New York for a very long time, so some of his writing had to comply with that requirement. However, from my perspective, I would add that an effective scholar/teacher, as Dr. Clarke did, must also publish in community newspapers and/or magazines that filter throughout various neighborhoods in America. People working every day, and even most students, don't often read 'high brow' scholarly journals unless they are doing a research paper.
I know scholars who would throw their hands in the air with disgust if the suggestion were made that they condense and simplify their written works and try to get them published in the top hip hop magazines. Some would consider this scholastic sacrilege. The reality of the situation is, however, that if you want to reach the masses of young people, that is how you do it.
One of the most significant things I came to admire about Dr. Clarke over the years, was that he was clearly a people's scholar/teacher. If one were to study his schedule of lectures, it would immediately become apparent that he frequently spoke at venues that reached people on every level, and every age group. Perhaps this, combined with his volumes of written and edited works, and what he considered his greatest contribution, being a classroom teacher is why he grew to command the highest levels of respect in both the academic and non-academic worlds. He earned the label: "The Dean of Black Historians." In fact, his influence and contributions on curricula development, study guides and other teaching materials regarding Afrikan World Studies, Afrikana Studies, Pan Afrikan Studies, Black Studies, as well as World History, is unmatched in the last 25 years.
I believe the pinnacle of his work, and maybe the real significance of his influence, has been to teach us how to look at Afrikan world history from a Black historical perspective. When I was doing research for the historical and musicological portion of my doctoral dissertation on Afrikan world history and music, for example, and sifting through decades of written material, one thing sprang forth like a rocket heading toward space: the large majority of written material was done by scholars and writers of European descent, from their perspectives. In other words, white scholars were dominating in the telling of the history of Afrikan people, and interpreting it as they saw fit. This can pose serious problems of accuracy, and lack of cultural sensitivity to the nuances of Afrikan world history, except in a few rare cases.
Dr. Clarke taught that we must reexamine the history told so often that we've taken it for granted. For example, there is the cliched idea that only the Greeks and Romans should be credited with giving the world the concept of civilization, when the original cultural people of that time and region were of Afrikan descent. The kind of honest re-investigation and analyses of historical facts advocated by Dr. Clarke has, however, brought forth the real truth that when the Afrikans along the Nile created the greatest ancient civilization the world has known, there was no such place called Greece, Rome or even Europe. His consistent theme was "Adding the missing pages of world history."
No one can tell the history of their family better than a qualified member of the family, and Dr. Clarke has been in the family business since he first started teaching the junior Sunday School class at his church, when he was ten years old. This was the period in which he experienced a major revelation that would be a determining factor in his life's direction, discovering that "There were no Black people in the land of Black people" in the Bible. Correcting this absence became his life's mission, and while on that journey he influenced countless other scholars, teachers and people interested in accurate historical information as it relates to the global place of the Afrikan and their contribution to world progress.
That really didn't manifest itself until I began to actualize his work in the form of this book. The narrative was not the most difficult, because all of the parts were right in front of me. It wasn't until I started putting his written works, edited works, works written about him, and other material together that my real labors began. I found myself going from library to library, doing every kind of computer search one can imagine. I also found myself manually going through volumes upon volumes of journals, magazines, newspapers and publications I had not even heard of. Soon, it also became apparent that the search had to go beyond domestic borders, because many of his works had been translated into various languages.
Often times, a person's significance is measured by the amount of materials written about him or her, or the diversity of works that quote or refer to that person. After months of collecting those materials, there was no doubt in my mind of the potency of his impact. I tell my students all the time that to do quality research, you have to be like a detective, hunting for evidence and clues in every possible corner you can imagine. I had no idea of the enormity of his works until I began the search.
I did long distance calls, faxes, e-mails, card file searches, news agency searches, I talked with past associates of Dr. Clarke, with his permission I went through his files, checked with his former secretaries numerous times, and checked and re-checked dates, places and printings. What was so amazing is that just when I thought I had gathered all of the materials Dr. Clarke had written, I would check another source, just to explore, and there would pop up another article, book review, short story, or something else he had written or had been written about him. It was the most extensive research exercise I had recently encountered, but it was like what the younger generation say, "It's all good".
As exhaustive as this effort was, the definitive statement I can now make is that I know this manuscript contains the most comprehensive and complete reference of his works to date. I think I have seen them all. In spite of that, there is probably another nugget of a written item hidden in some obscure or discontinued publication not carried in libraries, or in sources I investigated, or else hidden somewhere in his massive library in an area into which I couldn't quite get to.
When the progression of his speeches and writings are intimately investigated, an evolution can be clearly seen in the subject matter, terminology and expansion of his historical and intellectual consciousness. These are the elements that allowed him to be both a master teacher and to broaden his influence steadily through a long career.
His research output was relentless, even to the detriment of his health. Rather than spin the time necessary to recuperate from heart surgery, for instance, he would work in his office almost everyday, often through the night and weekends.
I was there as he was writing his last book, simultaneously trying to help another writer by composing the foreword to this author's work.
Derrick Grubb, his research assistant, read much of the material to him so that he could speed things up, but even with that, Dr. Clarke landed right back in the hospital with fluid in his lungs and his breathing impaired. As soon as he was able he was right back to it, in spite of those closest to him, including myself, trying desperately to get him to cut back and rest. We explained that there were many of his intellectual off springs now capable of carrying the work forward. But how do you slow down a prolific and creative mind? He did say he would cut back and just do some local lectures. Dr. Clarke had a very big heart, and it has generally hard for him to say no to people who asked him to speak and participate in their projects, especially when they were so demanding, and there were so many of them.
One thing that was a major surprise in my searching, while going through the John Henrik Clarke Papers at the Schomburg, I saw the study guides for many of his classes. When I started going through them a voice began saying to me, with the turn of each page, "anyone interested in teaching must see these." In fact, the quality of those guides makes me believe that it should be mandatory that new teachers and professors see them and use them. The guides are especially essential in observing how a scholar/teacher, operating from an Afrikan perspective, can present a balanced and rigorous approach to scholarship in the classroom. They can also serve as models for those teaching Afrikan world history in community centers, churches, parks and other non-traditional educational settings. It is hoped that the complete John Henrik Clarke Papers are published one day.
Finally, when I first started this endeavor, I felt it was something notable, but I also knew that something was missing. I didn't know what it was until I went back to New York, staying at Dr. Clarke's home. I had to go to The Schomburg Center, named after Arthur Schomburg, the scholar who started Dr. Clarke on his way. This is also the place where Langston Hughes' ashes, my favorite poet, are buried in the marble floor right in front of the Langston Hughes Auditorium. I had to spend almost two whole days doing research on the John Henrik Clarke Papers. I had to walk into the Harlem YMCA where the Harlem History Club started, and Dr. Clarke met his great teachers. I had to walk down Malcolm X Boulevard; Frederick Douglas Boulevard; Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard; go through Marcus Garvey Park and up 125th Street. Of course, his own street, 137th St., which is now named after him. That spiritual grounding gave me part of what was missing.
The highlight and the last stage for identifying the missing ingredient was actually working with Dr. Clarke, and having the presence of mind to video tape it. I had to read the entire manuscript to Dr. Clarke since he was totally blind. Reading the manuscript, only so much at a time, amid constant phone calls from people calling across the country checking on his health. When we finished, he said, "It's clear. We didn't have to make too many corrections." I then knew that my mission was complete. I had his blessings and the manuscript about him had come to life. Now, all the pieces were together. Unfortunately, like his friend Malcolm X, Dr. Clarke passed before the book was published.
The icing on the cake was when I returned home. Sitting with my wife Isidra and watching the video of Dr. Clarke and me working together, I noticed a slight smile on his face as he was explaining the title, On My Journey Now, which he gave to me. He told me it was the title of a spiritual, which has no individual composer because it is a folk song. He started reciting some of the lyrics: "On my journey now, Mount Zion. I'm on my journey now, Mount Zion. Well, I wouldn't take nothing, Mount Zion, for my journey now. You can talk about me just as much as you please. Well, I'll talk about you when I get on my knees, Mount Zion. On my journey now, Mount Zion." That session brought great joy to him, and to me. It will stay fresh in my mind forever.
One of the last things I said to Dr. Clarke before returning home was, "I promise you that I will do high quality work on this book." That is one promise that will never see a compromise. For I know, thinking in an Afrikan collective manner, that through this book, many of us can thank him for the enormous contributions he has made to our lives and how he has labored selflessly, even to his last moment, to do one simple thing--make history honest.
Dr. John Henrik Clarke (photo couresety of Bill Tieman of the Virginia Pilot) which appeared on the cover orginally published by the Department of Pan African Studies at California State University at Northridge via a special issue of their journal titled The Journal of Pan African Studies (vol.1, no.2, 2000; vol.2, no.1, 2001), edited by David L. Horne, Ph.D. and published here by the permission of the author, Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D.
Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D.
The Knowledge Revolutionary: Chapter 1
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 Afrika. 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 used 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 Afrikans 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 Afrikan 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. We were 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 less excuses. They had more hardships, and they faced them better. They had something we don't have, they had less detractions: 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.
There are some carryovers from slavery that affected me in my childhood. The light-skinned kids wouldn't let me on anything. I was kind of dark-skinned. The main thing, they wouldn't let me participate in the program during the school assembly. But fortunately, in the fifth grade, there was a teacher named Evelina Taylor. She appointed students to the assembly based on merit. That's how I got on the assembly.
I began to organize against the light-skinned kids, inasmuch as you got on the assembly, in the program, based on how well you got your lessons. I organized the black kids into what I called the "Black Brigade." We called them the "Light Brigade." We treated them like freaks. These people ate three meals a day, had washed cloths and clean shoes all the year round, you know. Literally, I ridiculed them. We had a kind of strength that they didn't have. I always remember that. We could stand up against more. There was some stamina coming out of those lower depths of our lives.
Because my teacher was so special, I wanted to do something extraordinary for her. I wanted to teach history. I wanted to say something about the history of Afrikan people in ancient times. I went to a white man that I worked for, whose books I had used liberally. He had a good library and never seemed to read books anyway. So when I borrowed his books, he never seemed to miss them. Some of them I brought back. Some of them I did not.
One day, I asked him for a book on--this is the word they used then, Negro people--early world history. There was a phrase in the South, they would say, "You let me down slow." He was not unkind. He said, "I'm sorry John, but I don't have such a book. You came from a people who have no history." He wasn't bitter about it. In fact, he was rather sympathetic toward me, in that I had belonged to a people who never made history. He was telling me, "But don't worry, because if you persevere, obey the laws, keep yourself clean and act upright, you might make history one day."
He would prophesize for me the greatest thing a white man could prophesize for a black kid when I was growing up. "One day you might be a great Negro, like Booker T. Washington." That was the highest compliment possible. I didn't know anything about Booker T. Washington then. Twenty years would pass before I would seriously investigate Booker T. Washington, his career, and realize that no matter what is said about Booker T. Washington, he was one of the most imaginative educators this country has yet to produce. There's some good things to be said about him. He was also a strategist, and some of the strategy backfired.
I left home when I was fourteen. I lived in Columbus, Georgia until I was eighteen. I used to caddy at the Fort Benning golf course. Occasionally, I would caddy for two majors. One was called Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was a major at Fort Benning, Georgia at the time. Another one was called Omar Bradley. We always think of Omar Bradley as the senior, because he tipped 25 cents. Eisenhower only tipped 15 cents. They didn't mean anything to us, but the whole measurement of the man, with these poor kids carrying their golf bags, was who tipped the most.
Later on, I started thinking about leaving Georgia. Every year there were lynchings. Some black person was brutally treated. I would say "I'm going to get out of this place." When you would go about in the morning to speak to people, mostly the roustabouts, they would say, "Hey, what you gonna say, man?" He would say, "Save your money and go up North. That's all I can say. Get out of this evil place." That stuck in my mind.
It was further imprinted on my mind by a local comedian called Sloppy Henry. Black people have a way of calling people the exact opposite of what they are. He was the best-dressed man in town, with his spats and his cane. So just to ridicule him, we called him Sloppy Henry. A great comedian. A great liar. I'm glad he related so many stories to me. He would relate stories of his adventures up North, in New York, and how he met Ethel Waters and Bill Robinson, the tap dancer, and appeared in Lou Lester's Variety Show, "Blackbirds." I didn't know until years later that most of it was a lie. Be that as it may, it gave me a sense of adventure. It took me away from that town. It made me dream and hope.
I somehow ended up in New York, though I was originally going to go to Chicago. The World's Fair was in Chicago. They weren't letting anyone into Chicago who had no address, no promise of a job. So I was turned down at the gates of Chicago, and decided to come to New York. I didn't know a soul. Didn't know an address, so I went to the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street, hoping to get at least a place to stay. I had a partner, James Holmes, who died years later, who got me in a municipal lodging house. Finally, I started working on the Lower East Side, mostly in an Orthodox Jewish community.
On the weekends, they didn't turn on their lights, do any chores or do anything. The sinful Gentiles would do their jobs like carrying money, or whatever. They were called a "Shopper's Boy". I was a shopper's boy, running errands for these Jewish families who couldn't touch money on the high holy days. They couldn't turn lights on or off, so I would turn their lights on and off, and occasionally wash their windows, clean the doctor's office, little janitorial work. I survived, but nearly every day that I had the time, I was in Harlem discovering that community.
Harlem was never meant to be a black community. We gained this community by default. Harlem is unique as a black community, as it is not on the other side of anything. It is in the geographical heart of Manhattan Island. This tells you that the community was not originally built for us. It wasn't even built for poor whites. It was built for upper class Dutch, and people of European extraction. Italians and Jews once lived on the outskirts of Harlem, what we now call East Harlem.
They over-built the community so they were advertising the fact that from your home in Harlem, to your office on Wall Street, it would take you only twenty-seven minutes to get there--with the extension of the subway, when they are running well. I have timed it from the door of my home to my classroom at New York University. It was twenty-seven minutes, so that advertisement was true.
They rented some apartments to blacks on 133rd Street. A black man, I think his name was Proctor, invented what was called "Block Busting." He would move blacks into a block, whites would panic and move out. He could then move blacks into the rest of the block. Blacks did not move to other parts of Harlem. The entertainment crowd, Bert Williams and others, Will Marion Cook, got to move to 39th Street. Whites would over charge them for these houses. They had to strive to keep up the payments. So 39th Street and 38th Street got the names of "Striver's Roll." All of this is told in better detail in an article I wrote, "Harlem, World's Most Famous Ethnic Community."
In my portrait of Arthur Schomburg, as my teacher, in an article "The Harlem History Club," that was my first university. More detailed then I have time for now. More than I remember now. The political side of Harlem is told in a book, Harlem: The Community In Transition and Harlem: U.S.A. There is a partial guided tour of the historical places that once existed in Harlem in a book by a person called Spike Lee, Historical Tour of New York.
I am not in the absolute best physical condition at the moment. If you consult these items on Harlem, you could get far more detail then I can give you right now in my state of mind.
I am going to re-write the book, Harlem: A Community In Transition, because I want to emphasize the interesting political making of Harlem. Also, the culture making and maintenance of Harlem. We could lose this community, because we do not own the real estate. That may have been our greatest mistake. We have not made it a mission of buying up the real estate. There were times we could have done that, with good organization. Whether it is too late or not, I don't know.
One of the more significant streets in Harlem was Seventh Avenue. It was the street of class and status. On Saturdays and Sundays, there was a custom of not walking on Seventh Avenue without your coat, hat and tie.
In the street speaking tradition, you were not suppose to speak on Seventh Avenue, which was kind of the graduate school for street speakers, until you did your apprenticeship on Lenox Avenue, which was the undergraduate school for street speakers. Lenox Avenue was a lower class, striving to be better. Seventh Avenue was a class that kind of made it. When we moved further up to the Dunbar Apartments, that was mainly middle class. These areas were well kept. It wasn't that Lenox Avenue wasn't well kept, it just wasn't kept as well as Seventh Avenue.
125th Street was the commercial street of Harlem. There's been a struggle for it. There's a struggle going on for it right now. Most of the money that is made in Harlem is made on 125th Street. It's the shopping district. It was the shopping district before blacks took over.
The changing of the street names was a concession to Black Nationalism. I think it was a good concession. It began during the Civil Rights Movement. The agitation began during the Civil Rights Movement. It took about ten years to make them actually do it. They changed Lenox to Malcolm X. Changed Seventh Avenue to Adam Clayton Powell. They changed Eighth Avenue to Frederick Douglas. Mt. Morris Park is now Marcus Garvey Park. One street was changed to Wesley Williams. I think he was a local resident who was the victim of something.
With the nightlife and the talent that came out of it, Harlem was the proving ground for future stars. Ella Fitzgerald started out on the amateur hour at the Apollo Theater. So did Sarah Vaugh. Some were just plain gospel singers. They got their start and established their reputation there.
When I settled in at the Harlem Y, things started to come into focus. I ran across The Harlem History Club. There, a great history teacher, Willis N. Huggins, the historian, taught me the political meaning of history. I met Arthur Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of Afrikan descent, and a great scholar who founded the Schomburg Collection by donating 10,000 books. He taught me the comparative approach to history. How to compare Afrikan history with other history. He taught me to read European history. He said by doing that, "You're going to understand Afrikan history better. The more world history you know, the better. You can put Afrika into proper focus if you have a good knowledge of world history." So I went to a lot of second hand bookstores. I began to buy history books. Oh, the most expensive one cost me a dollar.
My drive and passion was not only reading books, but a kind of feeling of the need for self-redemption, and the need for my people's redemption. After all, the Italian-Ethiopian War occurred soon after, 1935-1936. I arrived in 1933. This would fire me up. I would focus on Afrika and what was happening there. I would join the little youth group of the Garvey Movement, and I would read Marcus Garvey. Garvey was alive then, and he would send his papers and his messages from London. We'd wait by the boat. We didn't wait till it was delivered through the mail. We'd go down and meet the boat, and get the package off of the boat called, "The Black Man Magazine."
He wasn't sending no more than about 20 copies to the U.S., but before it got uptown, we had bought up all the copies. It never got to be sold on the newsstand, because there wasn't that many. Those people that knew about it were reading it ahead of time.
I became an active socialist, and to this day I don't see any difference between being a socialist, a Pan Afrikanist, and a nationalist, all at the same time. I think true nationalism has a socialist base. When I say socialism, I'm just not talking about what Karl Marx was talking about. I was not following the European invention of socialism. That's what got me in trouble with the Marxists of that day. That's what keeps me in trouble with the Marxists of this day. I was saying that I learned in the study of Europe, that the European mind was never suited for socialism. It was an individual mind.
The Afrikan had a collective mentality from the beginning, and socialism is a form of collectivism. If communism was to be brought over any place in the world, the chances are Afrika would have been the best place to bring it off. They were thinking along the lines that land cannot either be bought or sold, because it's the collective property of a whole people. The ruler is the guardian of the wealth, if there is any wealth. He serves at the grace of the people, and can be removed by the grace of the people. They're not talking about votes.
This difference I have had with Europeans on this issue, has caused me great stress at one point. The socialists or communists have always differed with me in relationship to black nationalism. I differ with a whole lot of people on it because I just don't think that we have to take our socialism from Europe. I think nationalism is a thing we have a right and responsibility to be, as we see fit. We can't let other people supervise us in this regard.
This conflict I had with the European socialists was accentuated when members of the War College, a socialist group, visited Harlem and different other communities once a year. I happened to make a speech. I had just come back from Egypt. I talked with some Egyptian engineers about the Aswan Dam. They said it was an engineering disaster. They took me to the dam and proved it to me. It was a disaster. A lot of historical places were flooded that didn't have to be flooded. A lot of things were removed that didn't have to be removed, including the great statues of Ramses II, at Abu Simbel. His wife, Nefretiri, had to be moved to another bank.
The ecology of Egypt was thrown out of kilter, when all they needed was booster dams, small booster dams, other than a big dam. Egyptians had asked the Americans to build the dam. America didn't do it, so they asked the Russians. The Russians went and built it in such a hurry, that they did it wrong. This was reported in a paper run by Reverend Moon's group, the "Moonies," called the Harlem Weekly.
James Jackson, of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party paper, picked it up and used this to say that I was a CIA agent. That I've gone the way of Eldridge Cleaver and Roy Innis, you know. This was utterly ridiculous. It's a simple truth. If America had built the dam, it would have done a better job, because they had more experience in building dams. It didn't mean that I favored one over the other. I don't favor either one of them. I wish the Egyptians, with all the engineers they've trained, would have built their own dam. That, and the fact that all of the editors, with no exception, even at Freedomways, where I had written several articles, tended to agree with Jackson's assessment.
Let me get this straight right off. I'm not talking about John Jackson, whose in Chicago. John Jackson is not a politician in that regard. He's a historian, somewhat of a cynic, but he's one of the best friends I've had from that old period.
These false accusations bothered my mind a great deal. The fact that people whose marriage I'd saved. Whose mortgage I saved. Whose jobs I helped to get, would turn on me without a question. This kind of pressure ultimately caused me to have a stroke.
Choosing the path that I travel does have some painful moments. The one thing that hurt me most, is that a lot of times I'm boycotted by black professors. Because of my attitude and approach toward black history and black people, they seem to think it's extreme. The loss of money doesn't bother me. But the maintenance of integrity matters to me, and I think enhances me. I'd rather have followed the same course, kept my integrity, than to have the money. I didn't set out to be rich anyway. I set out to deliver a message. I am self-educated from the depth of poverty. I figure my life has made a statement to black youth. I have assisted in the training of two generations of Ph.D's., and I barely finished grammar school.
In the course of their training, my greatest hope is that they themselves will give back to society what I tried to give to them. In my own community, there are three doctors at the Harlem Hospital that are former students of mine. Eleven heads of Black Studies' Programs are former students of mine. Three black ambassadors are former students of mine. Three different cultural attaches are former students of mine, two different students who are deans. I've left my mark for the better. If I have any memorial, that's where it's at, with the students I've trained. That's my hereafter.
When I define history, it is self-belief, self-confidence, and self- direction. History is the human road map, political road map, and cultural road map. We are children in the woods with no direction, until we understand. Otherwise, we can't get out of it. We don't know what direction we came from, when we got in there, and don't know which way to come out. History is really the leveler that tells you where you've been, where you are, and where you still have to go.
The Nile Valley is a good place to start when talking about our history. When I'm explaining in the classroom about beginnings, I say, "Suppose the continent of Afrika is a woman, and the Nile Valley is the womb. Out of that womb came some children that people call civilization." That's its real significance. It was the mother, not only of great Afrikan civilizations, but it was the mother of world civilizations. It created the first nation-state. Created the first basis of a philosophical way of life. It created the embryo of what is going to be a university, at least 5,000 years before the first university appeared in Europe.
It's important that we realize that all of this happened before the first foreigner set foot on Afrikan soil. It happened before the Hebrew entry. Egypt had reached its greatness when the Hebrews arrived. It was invaded soon after. There's no way you can claim Egypt for anybody other than Afrikan people. That's where you begin to put Afrika in proper focus to the world. Just like when you put a problem in a computer, if you say that two and two makes three, everything else is out of kilter. Egypt puts Afrikan history in proper focus. That's where you began to put the rest of it in focus.
Because of it's enormous greatness, Europeans have tried to lay claim to it. They have even tried to take it out of Afrika. It's a fact that the first pieces of European literature were the Iliad and the Odyssey, that's approximately 800B.C. Egypt had risen to its greatness before the European wrote his first piece of literature. Egypt was in decline before the European wore a shoe for the first time, or lived in a house that had a window. When the doubters appear, I would ask them to show me their chronology of Europe. Show me the dates when you started it. Why would you build so much in Afrika, before you build anything in Europe? Why are you so generous to outsiders, and so stingy to yourself?
Once you know European history, you can repudiate all of that right away. That's the significance of knowing European history. You can stop their claims in their tracks. When Egypt was in it's golden era, Europeans didn't exist as a people. The first European nations to come into existence were Crete, Greece and Rome, those closest to Afrika. There were no organized states in Europe at the time. There was no England at the time. No Russia, no Scandinavia, no Germany at the time. How can you create something for other people, when you hadn't created anything for yourself?
When you talk about the NAACP, the Urban League, SCLC, all of these organizations were integrationist compromisers. They still are. I think we've seen the fruit, or should I say strange fruit of integration. Marcus Garvey did not compromise. He added a dimension. He added the Afrikan dimension to our struggle, and the significance of the Afrikan connection. That was what we were looking for. We were too dependent on the United States. We were depressed. We had no place in the world to turn. No place in the world to claim. He laid claim to Afrika in such a way that it enhanced our spirit. We didn't even cry when we blew millions on the Black Star Line. It was a million dollar walk in the sun, but psychologically, worth it. It saved our sanity.
When I look at the consciousness and enthusiasm of that period, compared to now, we've regressed. This regression may have begun soon after World War II. We fought so hard for so long. There's something that happened to our spirit. We began to kind of pull back and settle. When you start off in a battle, you'll say, "I'll only settle for a whole loaf of bread." When you have fought so hard for so long, and you get tired, you'll say, "Oh hell, half a loaf will do."
Unfortunately, some of us still think that way. I think the spirit may be coming back up again. But you need a people to fire that spirit, and stroke that spirit. We've lost the fires and the strokers. We've lost our Malcolm X's, and King in his own way. Of course, I place Malcolm X over King, in the long range significance of leadership.
Malcolm had a shadow non-Muslim cabinet, and that was his great strength. People who were not Muslims, and were not even involved in the politics of being Muslim. People who would furnish him with basic information. The idea was that Malcolm must never be caught wrong, no matter what you did with the facts, make sure you get your facts straight.
I was his man on history--history and movements that came, and resistance movements. Different people did different things for him. He would call up and say, "Hey, what about some information on this? What do you got on this?" I would put a folder of information together and handed it to him. He was the fastest learner I've ever met in all my life. He could absorb more, and play it right back. He could take it from you, then talk it back to you, and teach you about it. His insight was so good. He learned so fast. God, he was a fine teacher, too. I would have loved to have him in the classroom.
As a human being, I think first that he came from the lower strata of society. He came up from the mire and made something of himself. He became a person of international affairs. I think first, as a human being, once he learned what integrity was, and what a cause was, what a commitment was, he couldn't be moved from it. He was honest to a fault. See, he had gone down the old dirty road. He didn't have to do that anymore. He saw that was no good. He was very shy, even bashful.
When he was at your home, and he saw something he wanted, he would ask for it like a respectful child. He wasn't like some of my colleagues, who would go to my book shelf, just take off a book, and sit down and start reading. He would say, "John, may I see this?" He wouldn't touch it until you told him okay.
Another thing about eating. He wouldn't eat anything at anyone's house. The reason, he was poisoned in Egypt. He would have coffee sometime. For us, only one time.
Lynn Schifflet, who lived in Los Angeles, was his last secretary. He came to her house or apartment she had with Mariel Feelins. He'd been out all day, so he bought a steak and asked Mariel to fix it. He stood in the door of the kitchen the whole time. He didn't move. When she finished it and put it on a plate, she handed it to him. He wouldn't let her bring it to the table. He was as careful as he could be. Yet, there was a warmth in him that you don't see in many men.
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|Title Annotation:||p. 59-83|
|Author:||Person-Lynn, Kwaku; Snipes, Wesley|
|Publication:||Journal of Pan African Studies|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2014|
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