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Clarke, John Henrik

John Henrik Clarke

John Henrik ClarkeJohn Henrik Clarke (1915-1998), born to sharecroppers in Union Springs, Alabama, changed his middle name from Henry in honor of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, a pioneer of theatrical modernism.  Clarke in turn strived to modernize the field of African American history, inspired by his migration to New York City during the final years of the Harlem Renaissance and by the mentorship of Arthur A. Schomburg, whose 10,000-piece collection of Afro-Americana provided the core of what is now the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Clarke began his writing life with the story “On the Other Side” (1938) and later contributed to African American fiction as the editor of American Negro Short Stories (1966) and William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), a collection offering stern criticism of a white novelist’s bestselling fantasy of black slave rebellion.  Yet Clarke’s most important work as a writer took the form of nearly two-dozen books and pamphlets on African world history seen from a black nationalist perspective.  Motivated to dispel the illusion that black history began with European colonization and had no extensive impact on the U.S., he published such titles as Harlem U.S.A. (1971), Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa (1973), and the inclusive African People in World History (1991).  Despite his lack of a Ph.D., he helped to establish Black Studies programs at both Hunter College and Cornell University, the latter of which now hosts the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library (like his mentor Schomburg, Clarke’s name thus identifies a major black archive).  Clarke’s FBI file, opened as early as 1961, casts him as a “well-known Negro writer” and contains evidence of surveillance of his residence as well as his many publications.  By 1972, the FBI had alerted the Secret Service of his potential danger due to his “background, emotional instability or activity in groups engaged in activities inimical to [the] U.S.”  Clarke’s file is provided thanks to the original FOIA research of Reginald Smith. 

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Clarke, John Henrik

FBI documents studying John Henrik Clarke.




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