John H. Clarke, 83, Leading African American Historian

Posted: July 18, 1998

John Henrik Clarke, 83, a leading African American historian and scholar, died of a heart attack Thursday at St. Luke's Hospital in New York.

An activist as well as a scholar, Mr. Clarke was once a confidant of Malcolm X and an adviser to Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. He was a leading proponent of the Afrocentric view of history and culture.

Though he never graduated from high school, Mr. Clarke became an authority on African history and culture. He is perhaps best known as a leader in the development of curricula for African American studies.

Mr. Clarke downplayed his influence as a historian in a 1995 interview, then added, ``If I lead the field in any way, it is in the area of curricula development, study guides and other teaching materials.''

Born into a sharecropping family in Union Springs, Ala., Mr. Clarke grew up in Columbus, Ga., and in 1933 moved to New York, where he became a writer during the Harlem Renaissance. He served in the Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945, attaining the rank of master sergeant.

After his discharge, he returned to Harlem and resumed his writing career. One of his more than 50 published short stories, ``The Boy Who Painted Christ Black,'' has been translated into more than a dozen languages and widely anthologized.

He was the co-founder and associate editor of Harlem Quarterly, from 1949 to 1951, and he wrote for a number of publications, including the Pittsburgh Courier and the Ghana Evening News. He was assistant editor of Freedomways Magazine from 1962 to 1982.

He also wrote or edited more than 30 books and contributed conference papers and articles to journals around the world. He was the editor of Malcolm X: The Man and His Time.

Several years ago, actor Wesley Snipes produced John Henrik Clarke, a Great and Mighty Walk, a movie profile of Mr. Clarke's career.

Often honored for his work, Mr. Clarke, who experienced the Harlem Renaissance with poet Langston Hughes, once said he had won so many awards ``I could go into the plaque business.'

He earned his academic degrees at the end of his career, earning a bachelor's in 1992 and doctorate in 1994 from Pacific Western University. Earlier, he had studied at Hunter College and at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Still, he had a low opinion of degrees. ``What I have learned is that a whole lot of people with degrees don't know a damn thing, and a lot of people with no degrees are brilliant,'' he told an interviewer in 1995.

From 1964 until 1969, he was the director of HARYOU-ACT Heritage Teaching Program, then joined Hunter College as associate professor of black and Puerto Rican studies from 1970 to 1986.

Mr. Clarke was opinionated and never shy about voicing his views - often surprising and often in earthy language.

He dismissed Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, for example, as ``overrated . . . and he's not offering anything but rhetoric,'' and Nelson Mandela as ``one of the greatest African disappointments of the 20th century.'' Mr. Clarke faulted Mandela for letting - in his opinion - whites create conditions in South Africa that resulted in poor relations among the various races.

He said the antagonism between African Americans and Jews was ``a fake issue. The Jews are picking on us because they're too . . . cowardly to fight their Gentile enemies. . . . Their real enemy is white.''

He was married in 1962 to Eugenia Evans, whom he later divorced. The couple had two children, a daughter, Nzingha Marie, and a son, Sonni Kojo. Last September, he married his companion of 11 years, Sybil Williams Clarke. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In April, his daughter asked a New York court to declare him incapacitated and appoint a guardian to watch over his affairs. A judge dismissed the suit quickly after observing that Mr. Clarke ``does not have any functional limitations which he has not addressed adequately.''

Funeral services will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Abyssinian Baptist Church, 138th Street between Lennox and Seventh Avenues, Harlem. Burial will be in Columbus, Ga., at a later date.

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