BHM feature part one: Dr. John Henrik Clarke

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday February 04 2015 in Opinion
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Imagine someone who possesses the eminence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the fortitude of Malcolm X, the global impact of Marcus Garvey, the brilliance of W.E.B. Du Bois, and who would you have? Dr. John Henrik Clarke!


Several of us in the 1990s anti-apartheid movement – Owen Leach, Cleveland Moulton, Dudley Laws, Akua Benjamin, Colin Kerr, myself and my spouse, Joan, participating in a bus ride organized by Charlie and Hetty Roach – had the pleasure and honour of meeting him, the keynote speaker at a conference of Pan-Africanists in Atlanta, Georgia.


Ironically, the weekend of this conference was the same on which occurred the riots in Los Angeles condemning the beating of Rodney King by police. That same week in Toronto, another Black youth, Raymond Lawrence, had also been killed by police bullets. In response, a demonstration launched at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor by members of the Black Action Defence Committee had proceeded down Yonge St. to rally at Toronto City Hall. There, speeches and resolutions were made and taken about the killing of the Toronto youth, and in support of Black America.


The BADC rally over, many of the youth attending, mostly Black, but many too from other races, took matters into their own hands, triggered by previous run-ins with the police. En masse, they stormed back up Yonge St. Thus, on May 5, 1992 occurred what is called the “Yonge Street Riots”. Some of us, at the ending of the conference, had flown back to Toronto early to support the rally.


But who was Dr. Clarke? He was an autodidact, that is someone essentially self-taught. Never having formally completed high school – these were generally unavailable especially in the southern states for Black American children – he went on to complete a B.A., M.A. and PhD in History. He was also that rare sort of person whose memory was photographic, so that even in his waning years when blinded by glaucoma, he could cite verbatim from ancient and modern authors, whole passages and pages of text.


His special contribution to Black Studies was as a Pan-Africanist African-American writer, historian, and professor. In 1960, he pioneered the creation of Africana studies, and its presence in professional institutions in academia across America. Born in 1915, Clarke died in 1998, aged 82. He had been born the grandson of slaves in Alabama. It was expected that he would go on, like his family and community, to do sharecropping for White farmers.


Much of who Clarke was, and what he did, and why (in my opinion, it is essential for our children to be acquainted with scholars like him), can be found in the following YouTube link that best summarizes his life and times:


It is aptly titled, “A Great and Mighty Walk”. In fact, viewing it would provide much more pertinent information on him and thereby on Black history than a column like this could muster.


But why this, and why Clarke? The idea came from an experience had by a young high school student. In it, she was asked a question which left her stranded. What was an eye-opener is that she regularly attends Black History Month activities: gospel fests, lectures, film takes, etc. But when a situation around the legitimacy of Black History Month was brought up in class, it left her unable to respond effectively.


So, what advice would you give a student whose White teacher in a discussion on Black History Month says to her: “Remember, your people sold your people into slavery”. Not only was she unable to respond but other students in the racially diverse class – some who rarely speak out in class – weighed in with conviction on the side of the teacher. While at it, how would you also respond when discussing the issue of police killings of Black youth to the retort that, “Blacks kill more Blacks than police do.” Moreover, have you ever been faced with the accusative term, “reverse racism”? And are you aware of the many well-worn statements negating anti-Black racism, and the validity of Black History?


Truth be told, it was a statement by a White lawyer for whom he did after-school chores that first piqued Clarke’s interest as a child about Black history. In his Friday class when students were to do presentations on current affairs before other classmates, he wanted to be the smart one, usually trying to bring up some unusual topic. He also wanted to talk about Black history that had to do with more than slavery.


In this vein, many of us involved in planning Black History Month activities have much the same challenge since the month usually begins with slavery and ends with the Civil Rights movement. In addition, how in discourse with colleagues do we separate racial naiveté from racial bigotry?


It is thus that the young student, John Clarke, had asked the lawyer for any information he had on Black History. To this, the lawyer had replied, “you come from a people who do not have any history”. Even at that tender age, Clarke remembers how in his mind he had recoiled against such a thought. But it was from this particular experience that the rest of his life was shaped, was bent to filling this great void, and respond effectively to mischief, and to revisionist history.


His own words best sum up his life’s focus: “My life’s mission has been to deliver a message of renewal, redemption and re-dedication for young people all over the world, and I hope the walk has afforded me that claim.”


In conclusion, in addition to all you do to commemorate this month, seek for and find information on this African-American scholar par excellence, John Henrik Clarke. And finding and learning of him, then sharing him with our children, colleagues and others.


To be continued: Three slave trades: the Arabized Indian Ocean slave primarily trading African Women to harems in the East; the European Atlantic Ocean slave primarily trading African men to plantations in the West; and currently, the global slave trading of women and children as sexual commodities.

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