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Pan-Africanism in the Academia : John Henrik Clarke and the African Heritage Studies Association

Panafricanisme dans l’université : John Henrik Clarke et l’African Heritage Studies Association
[10/10/2016]

Résumés

En 1969, pendant la conférence annuelle de l’African Studies Association, un groupe d’intellectuels noirs remit violemment en cause le « fonctionnement néocolonial » de l’organisation et demanda la juste représentation des universitaires noirs dans ses instances décisionnelles. Le conflit aboutit à la construction d’une nouvelle organisation, l’African Heritage Studies Association, qui, sous la direction de John Henrik Clarke, mit en place des réseaux de collaboration entre chercheurs des Etats-Unis, de l’Afrique et de la Caraïbe.
Pour nombre de commentateurs contemporains, la création de l’AHSA constitue l’acte de naissance de l’ « Afrocentrisme » dans les cercles académiques nord-américains. En proposant de « racialiser » l’approche des sciences sociales, les membres du groupe auraient été des pionniers dans l’élaboration d’une nouvelle philosophie de l’histoire selon ce que John Henrik Clarke présentait déjà comme une ligne « afrocentrique ».
Fondée sur une recherche sur l’histoire des Black studies aux Etats-Unis, cet article propose de changer de perspective en démontrant comment au-delà de l’ « Afrocentrisme », la création de l’AHSA peut s’interpréter comme un effort de constitution d’un mouvement panafricain ancré dans le politique et la lutte anticoloniale. Dans cet optique, l’article pose la question des liens entre champ disciplinaire des sciences humaines et sociales et engagement.

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Introduction

  • 1 Howe, Stephen, Afrocentrism. Mythical pasts and Imagined Homes, London, Verso, 1998, p. 61.
  • 2 Walker, Clarence, We can’t go home. An argument about afrocentrism, Oxford, Oxford University Press (...)

1The aim of this paper is to talk about an association of African American, African and Caribbean scholars and activists that was created in 1969 in Washington D.C. This organization is called the African Heritage Studies Association (AHSA). It came out of a conflict between members of the US African Studies Association and Black participants in this association’s annual meetings in 1968 and 1969. The AHSA was given a bit of attention in the 1990’s when European and North American scholars began to write about what they feared was the threat of “Afrocentrism” in North American Academia. For Oxford professor in political science Stephen Howe, for instance, the AHSA “by no standard large bodies” was an “undistinguished group of scholars”, led by “prolific but unscholarly John Henrik Clarke” “who, speaking for nobody apart from themselves” tried to impose on the African Studies Association racialized and afrocentric categories1. In the same line of thought, Historian Clarence Earl Walker in his book We can’t go home2 sees the creation of AHSA as the real founding act of “Afrocentrism” in US Academia.

  • 3 Guedj, Pauline, “The transnationalization of the Akan religion : Religion and Identity among the U. (...)

2I first got interested in AHSA when I was writing my dissertation which dealt with an African American religious group called the Akan who used a religion originating from Ghana to sustain its members’ search for African origins3. That movement was created in the 1960’s and echoed some of the AHSA’s line of thought among which was the need for African Americans to reclaim African history in order to liberate themselves and their community from oppression.

  • 4 The debates around “Afrocentrism” arouse in American and European Academia at the end of the 1990’s (...)

3After my dissertation, I decided to build a research project focusing more precisely on what was called in the literature “Afrocentrism”. I was interested in pulling afrocentric ideologies out of the polemical debates that it often creates4 and to study it as a social construct that lies at the intersection of Academia and Politics and sometimes religions and arts. In order to do so, I decided to focus on the careers and trajectories of a few afrocentric intellectuals who made the transition from politics to the universities. One of these intellectuals and probably the main focus of my research investigation is John Henrik Clarke who became the first chair of AHSA in 1969.

4John Henrik Clarke died in 1998 and left an impressive collection of archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City. In 2014, I began working on a project devoted to Dr. Clarke by going through the archival boxes at the Schomburg Center and meeting some of his ex colleagues and friends. Out of the numerous boxes, two were dedicated specifically to AHSA. While going through the papers, which include minutes of meetings, declarations at conferences, newsletters, letters and correspondence, I realized that the aim of the organization was actually much more complex than what a set of anti-Afrocentrists writers were describing some ten years ago. Indeed my impression is that if AHSA can definitely be considered as a standpoint for US Afrocentric ideologies in Academia, the association tried above all to create a broader Pan-African organization grounded in politics and anticolonial struggles. In the view of its members, not only US citizens but also and maybe even mostly scholars from the African continent and the Caribbean, the rewriting of African history was a first step towards a broader revolution that could affect power relations in the world and help in the building of a strongly united Pan-African community.

  • 5 See for Instance Aldridge, Delores P., Out of the revolution. The development of Africana studies, (...)

5This paper will go back to the history of the organization, talk about its ideological framework and introduce its founder John Henrik Clarke as a symbol of the type of activism that was at the basis 1960’s movement for Black studies. Indeed if AHSA’s break from ASA has been studied by a set of scholars5, the history of the organization per se is largely unknown.

Confrontation at Montreal

  • 6 Biondi, Martha, The Black Revolution on Campus, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California (...)
  • 7 In April 1968, a group of Black students of Sir George William University filed a complaint against (...)

6The rising of AHSA took place within a period of two years with two major events at its heart : the African Studies Association’s (ASA’s) annual meetings of 1968 in Los Angeles and 1969 in Montreal. During that period of time, American Academia was divided around the issue of Black Studies. Throughout the entire country, African American students who had recently enrolled in Post-Civil Rights and integrated universities began a fight for the larger admission of Blacks in the university system as well as the creation of Black studies programs which would emphasize on their contribution in the making of the United States and of world history. In 1966, the first Black studies department was created at San Francisco State College chaired by the African American sociologist Nathan Hare. San Francisco state was soon followed by other departments and programs in universities like Columbia, Harvard, Cornell and the City University of New York6. While tensions between African American and ASA scholars were happening in Montreal, in 1969, the US still had a few universities taken over by students. Earlier this year, in Canada, Sir George Williams University (now part of the University Concordia at Montreal) found itself at the heart of what was referred to as the “riot” of its Caribbean students. The protest led to the adoption of new sets of regulation and rights to fight against institutional racism in Canadian Academia7.

  • 8 Howe, Stephen, Afrocentrism. Mythical pasts and Imagined Homes, London, Verso, 1998, p. 60.
  • 9 Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the African (...)
  • 10 ibid., p. 135.

7In 1968, the African Studies Association organized its 12th annual meeting in Los Angeles. At the end of the 1960’s, the association counted over 1500 members and about 300 affiliated institutions. It was a predominantly White organization and gathered only North American scholars8. During the meeting in Los Angeles a group of Black scholars, most of which were actually not members of the ASA, emerged, calling themselves the Black Caucus. They asked the ASA to render “itself more relevant and competent to deal with the challenging times and conditions of Black people in Africa, in the United States and in the whole Black world”9. It condemned the fact that the ASA never took into consideration the knowledge produced inside of the African American community in which intellectuals and activists have been studying African societies for centuries. It asked for more Blacks to be associated to the organization and for the establishment of steady and long-term relationships between the ASA and new Black studies departments in the country. The group’s claims were presented to the African Studies Association’s board by John Henrik Clarke, an intellectual and activist teacher from Harlem, who had been teaching African history in grassroots organizations for about 30 years. The board’s response lied on the creation of a committee, the Committee on Afro-American studies, led by James L Gibbs Jr, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, whose major role was to carefully examine the Black caucus’s demands and critiques10.

  • 11 Since the 1970’s, the expression Africana studies has often been favored by scholars involved in th (...)
  • 12 John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 5, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New Yo (...)

8While James L. Gibbs was carrying on his mission, the Black caucus began organizing itself into a functioning committee. The committee included Len Jeffries (who will soon become the head of New York City College’s Black studies department), Harold Weaver (educator at the center for African Studies of Saint John University, Jamaica NY and who will become the chair of Rutgers College program in Africana11 studies), Shelby Lewis (assistant professor at the department of political science of Southern University Baton Rouge in Louisiana and today professor emeritus at Clarke College in Atlanta, Georgia), Chike Onwuachi (a Nigerian scholar, future director of the African studies research program at Howard university) Nell Painter (then a Master student in anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles and today a retired professor from Princeton), Mike Searles (Then an activist educator in Washington D.C., today retired professor of history at Augusta State University, Georgia) and John Henrik Clarke (instructor for Harlem based organization HARYOU ACT at that time who will become the first chair of the Black and Puerto Rican studies department at Hunter College, New York)12.

9The committee agreed to meet in New York City on December 20 1968 at Emory McLeod Bethune School in Harlem. The meeting was open to all “Afro-American scholars, educators and community people interested in education”. During that meeting, the idea of establishing a separate organization of Black scholars was put forward and it was made clear that the future meetings of this soon to be organization should all be held in the Black community or in predominantly Black schools.

  • 13 Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and R (...)

10This first meeting was followed by a second one on June 27-28 1969 at the Federal City College in Washington D.C. where the Black caucus was named the African Heritage Studies Association13. The AHSA reminded the Black caucus’s demand for greater Black representation in the ASA, and especially in the board of the association but still considered itself as a group within the African Studies Association. The group demanded that a formal meeting be organized during the ASA’s following conference in Montreal. According to John Henrik Clarke, that meeting was cancelled by the organizers. In the meantime, a few members of the AHSA did meet with the ASA Committee on Afro-American Studies. That was the case in particular for John Henrik Clarke and Leonard Jeffries who participated in a reunion that took place in San Francisco on January 1969.

11Nevertheless, the cancellation of the ASA-AHSA meeting in Montreal was soon seen as an outrage by members of the caucus. They decided to show their discontent by interrupting the first session of the Montreal annual meeting as well as few others. On October 16th 1969, in the morning, while the ASA president L. Gray Cowan was introducing the guest speaker of the conference, Senegal’s ambassador to West Germany Gabriel d’Arboussier, a group of AHSA members took over the stage. They appealed directly to people in the audience and demanded that the ASA board would stop hiding and directly confront them.

12AHSA members contended that the ideological framework of the association violated African societies and perpetuated “neo colonialism” :

  • 14 John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 7, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New Yo (...)

“We suspect that this is a new era of academic colonialism and that this is not unrelated to the neo-colonialism that is attempting to re-enslave Africa by controlling the minds of African people”14.

  • 15 Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the African (...)

13The group demanded that the study of Africa be undertaken “from a pan-africanist perspective, or Afrocentric perspective, which defines that all Black people are African peoples and negates the tribalization of African peoples by geographical demarcation on the basis of colonialist spheres of influence”15. Finally, the AHSA demanded racial parity in the ASA, asking for the creation of a new board consisting of “6 Africans and 6 Europeans”.

  • 16 Ibid. p. 100.

14At the evening ASA business meeting of the ASA, professor Chike Onwuachi reaffirmed the AHSA demands. A motion was suggested on racial parity. Nevertheless, ASA fellows, who were the only ones allowed to vote out of the 1600 persons registered in the meeting, voted against AHSA’s claims (104 to 93). As the AHSA members along with a group of supportive White scholars who called themselves the White radical caucus led by Tanzania specialist Idrian N Resnick were about to leave the meeting, Professor Fred Burke of SUNY Buffalo, tried to come up with a solution to the conflict16.

  • 17 Ibid.

15Claiming to be the voice of a group of “25 White concerned liberals”, Burke proposed the creation of a 30 members racially balanced committee to draft a new constitution that would respond the AHSA demands and would include a clause stating that “at least half of the members of the new board of directors must be Black”17.

  • 18 ibid. p. 101.

16The status quo did not last though. Indeed a few days after the conference, James Duffy, the African Study Association executive secretary and a former president of the organization suspended the resolution and determined along with the ASA attorney that the constitution of the organization had been violated at the Montreal meeting and that the votes were actually unconstitutional. With his actions, died the possible reconciliation of the AHSA with the ASA18.

17In December 1969, the journal Africa Today devoted one of its sections to the crisis. Various scholars participated and gave their opinions at a time where the Burke resolution was still in motion. The section first included the Gibbs report in which James L. Gibbs detailed the reflections and analysis produced by the committee on Afro-American studies. The report explained that the major issue it had regarding the Black caucus’ demands revolved around the idea of building a history according to “the black point of view.” :

  • 19 Gibbs, James L., “The Gibbs report”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 22.

“It is clear that members of the Black caucus feel that this is very important goal. Yet most members of the association probably are unsure are to what is the ‘black point of view.”19

18It also specified that invitation to join the ASA were sent to Black colleges and Black studies departments as well as all members of the Black caucus after the Los Angeles meeting. Yet, only a few applications were received.

  • 20 Van Den Berghe, Pierre, “Report of the 1969 Crisis”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 8-9.
  • 21 Sklar, Richard L., “African Studies at Montreal”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, P. 11.
  • 22 Immanuel Wallerstein, then Associate professor in sociology at Columbia University, remained after (...)

19Pierre Van Den Berghe, a Belgium sociologist, professor the University of Washington and specialized in the study of African ethnic relations, then opened the discussion accusing AHSA of being an apartheid association acting in the logics of racial conflict. Van Den Berghe20 then praised the Burke decision arguing that the board should be made of 6 Africans, meaning 6 citizens of African States (highlighted) and 6 non Africans. He was then followed by UCLA political scientist and soon to be president of ASA Richard L. Sklar arguing that the association could not hide behind objectivity anymore. “The ASA today is political or nothing.”21 Immanuel Wallerstein22 in an essay entitled “Africa, America and the Africanists” denounced the apartheid analogy and defended the need for quota as a way to succeed racial integration.

  • 23 James Turner is the founder of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. Afte (...)
  • 24 Turner, James and Murapa, Rukudzo, « Africa : Conflict in Black and White », Africa Today, 1969, 16 (...)
  • 25 Resnik, Idrian N., “Crisis in African Studies”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 15.

20Finally, a voice was given to members of the two caucuses that arouse during these meetings : Political scientists James Turner23 and Rukudzo Murapa of AHSA condemned the arrogance of White scholarship, the exclusion of Black scholars in the debates on African history and issued of their action “a challenge to the White criteria of competence, definition and direction of White research in Africa.”24 Idrian N. Resnick of the Radical White Caucus denounced the positions of the Black caucus for not “going far enough.” He asked the ASA to clear their opposition to colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism and longed for an ASA “that serves, rather than impedes, the liberation of Black peoples.”25

  • 26 Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the African (...)
  • 27 ibid. p. 101.

21Oppositions to the Montreal accord were soon published and discussed elsewhere. South African historian Arthur Keppel-Jones took over the apartheid analogy and pushed it even further. “I recognize Nazi stormtroopers when I see them, and I am no more willing to submit to bullying from black ones than from white”26. Martin Kilson, Harvard political scientist and only African American members of the ASA board also strongly condemned the Black caucus. In a letter addressed to the ASA board member in 1970 and signed by 96 Africanists, Kilson denounced the “almost incomprehensible gesture of concession made to a small minority.”27

22A last statement that needs to be mentioned here comes from Léon-Gontran Damas, the French Guianan poet and politician who was on stage along with Gabriel d’Arboussier when members of the Black caucus seized the microphone in Montreal. At the meeting right after the first session, Damas apologized for his reaction at the plenary session and for not backing up immediately the demands of the Black caucus. Damas explained that he got emotional to protect D’Arboussier who had always been a defender of Africans. He was also looking after his friend, French anthropologist Georges Balandier, who was scheduled to speak in the afternoon :

  • 28 John Henrik Clarke papers, Box 37, folder 7, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New Yo (...)

“The professor of the Sorbonne, he explained, is a friend in struggle. We both belong to the French Left. It was on the insistence of D’Arboussier and myself that Balandier accepted to come to speak because when he knew of the events of the morning he did not want to come.”28

  • 29 See also Skinner, Elliott, « African Studies, 1955-1975 : An Afro-American Perspective », Issue : J (...)

23In fact, D’Arboussier and Damas ended up making a statement at the end of the Montreal conference indicating their support to the AHSA demands and explaining that some similar thoughts had been enunciated during the 1967 Africanist congress in Dakar that they both participated in29.

The ideological framework of AHSA

24After the Montreal conference, the African Heritage Studies Association became a fully independent organization. Its members came together during a series of meetings trying to establish its membership rules, its constitution as well as its functioning. It was soon agreed that the second annual meeting of the association will be organized at Howard University, one of the most famous Historical Black colleges in the US, in Washington D.C. in May 1970. The conference will only be opened to Black scholars, intellectuals and activists and will consist on a set of paper presentations and workshop discussions dealing precisely with the goals and ambitions of the newly created association.

25Under the banner of its president, John Henrik Clarke, members of the AHSA also tried, before the Washington D.C. conference, to come up with a first working paper which would make the organization’s objectives clearer. Entitled “the ideological framework of AHSA”, the text intended to clarify the type of work that will be produced by AHSA members and more importantly the political goals of the organization :

  • 30 John Henrik Clarke papers Box 37, folder 2, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New Yor (...)

26“The intent of African Heritage Studies Association is to use African history to effect a world union of African people. This association of scholars of African-descent is committed to the preservation, interpretation and creative presentation of the historical and cultural heritage of African people both on the ancestral soil of Africa and in diaspora in the Americas and throughout the world. We interpret African history from a Pan-Africanist perspective that defines all Black people as African people… As scholar-activists, our program has as its objective the restoration of the cultural, economic and political life of African people, everywhere... But this is only the beginning. We know that there is no way to move a people from slavery to freedom and self-awareness without engaging in political expediency and revolutionary coalitions… It will be our function as scholar-activists to put the components of our heritage together to weld an instrument of liberation.”30

27When reading John Henrik Clarke’s statement, the crisis at Montreal and AHSA’s opposition to the ASA takes on another dimension. First, the ideological framework of the AHSA puts forward the idea of a necessary connection between historical and scientific productions and politics. The studies produced by AHSA members will then have to recognize their political roots and be clearly goal-oriented. They will pursue the liberation of Black people, Africa and its diaspora. Second, Clarke’s paper clearly puts forth the idea of a Pan-African perspective that believes in the cultural unity of Black/African people and that sustains the idea that only a recovered unity could permit the liberation of African people throughout the world. Finally, the statement makes a connection between the regaining of a cultural and historical heritage and the political action and revolution that will make liberation possible. Therefore, in the words of Clarke, the AHSA becomes not only a professional association of Black scholars, the way the ASA is a professional association of Africanists, but a political movement seeking for the emancipation of Black people.

  • 31 This D.C. conference gathered some of the most influent Pan-African scholars (CLR James, Walter Rod (...)
  • 32 Skinner, Elliott, “African Heritage Reappraised”, John Henrik Clarke papers, Box 39, Folder 19, Sch (...)

28The framework announced in Clarke’s statement was then experimented and followed in most of the meetings organized by the group. In 1970, in Washington D.C., the organization called upon a meeting which will be divided in 4 panel sessions31. The first session, “The African Cultural Heritage Reappraised” aimed at defining African culture and discussing the needs for Blacks to reconnect with their past. The most well known participant, Columbia University anthropologist Elliott Skinner described this effort in his paper’s introduction : “People of African descent must reappraise their cultural heritage if they want to be truly free. They must actively challenge those who would destroy or distort their culture and seize control of their own destiny32.” The panel welcomed papers by Adelaide Hill, Absolom Vilakazi and George Bond.

  • 33 Turner James, “Introduction”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 20, 1970.

29The second panel “The New Africanism in Political Perspective” was opened by a statement by political activist and scholar James Turner which reminded that “The assumption of this panel is that knowledge and intellectual reflection that does not blend itself to the political activity of our struggle is useless33.” The session included papers by CLR James, Gerald Mc Worther and Stanilas Adotevi.

30The third panel claimed a more practical ambition. Entitled “Black Studies and the Struggle for Black Education” it was chaired by Vincent Harding and claimed the need for the organization to provide curriculum both for institutionalized Black studies departments and for grassroots organizations which specialized in education. A distinction was made between Black studies, defined as “what is going on in predominantly White universities” and Black education “which would contain all of the levels of education and would be confined to Black people.” Presentations included papers by William Stickland and Joyce Ladner.

  • 34 Lynch, Holly, “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box (...)

31Finally, the last panel “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples” was composed both of papers suggesting an alternate vision of African history and others trying to define what a Pan-African understanding of that history should be ; This Pan-African perspective could be well explained by quoting Hollis Lynch’s presentation “The Pan-African perspective academically says, first that you cannot make a division, a distinction between the history of African people and the people of the new world. Second, politically we are concerned with history not for history’s sake but we see it as a weapon in the liberation of Black people34”. Adu Boahen, Walter Rodney and John Henrik Clarke participated in the discussions.

32The AHSA 2nd annual meeting in Washington D.C. was a first attempt to concretely create a Pan-African organization of scholars. In fact, it tried to reach this goal by three manners. First, while the first AHSA members were mostly US African Americans, the Washington meeting tried hard to bring together Black scholars (all considered Africans) from the different continents. The meeting welcomed such scholars and activists as Guyanese Walter Rodney, Trinidadian CLR James, South African Absolom Vilakazi, Ghanaian Adu Boahen as well as philosopher from Benin Stanislas Spero Adotevi. All of them decided to precisely address the organization’s goals in their presentations. That was specifically the case for Stanislas Adotevi who suggested to expand the organization’s programs by institutionalizing itself in Africa :

  • 35 Adotevi, Stanislas, “The New Africanism in Political Perspective”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 3 (...)

“I hope that the AHSA organize itself on a Pan-Black, Pan-African model ; that it creates branches in Africa and everywhere Black people are found. That it establishes contact with the African people and organization concerned with complete liberation in order to implement the principles of the new Pan-Africanism that we have defined at this meeting ; that the AHSA becomes the ideological center for the new Pan-African movement, the center for research and data collection for African culture ; that it inspires African people to become economists, historians, sociologists, black economists and black historians35.”

  • 36 Onwuachi, Chike, “Africanism. Towards a New Definition”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder (...)
  • 37 John Henrik Clarke papers, Box 37, folder 36, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New Y (...)

33Second, the meeting tried to concretely engage with action. In his opening address Chike Onwuachi insisted on the fact that “Our task will not be a question of mere revolutionary verbalisms. We need to find articulations which design actional models for Black liberation and will begin to give us realistic perspectives36.” In order to do so, the organization tried to complement the plenary sessions with workshops during which scholars and participants could give their opinions and think about what the organization thought as its major issue “How do we act from here ?” This question of action is going to lie at the very heart of AHSA’s future debates and conflicts. It is because of lack of action that John Henrik Clarke will take his distance from the group and that he will end up in a 1976 letter describing the failure of the organization37.

34Finally, the meeting in Washington D.C. tried to come up with a definition of the roles of historians and social science scholars as activists. If history becomes a tool for activism, how can we create a new figure of scholarship that will clearly bridge the gap between Academia and politics ? For AHSA members, the answer to that question will largely rely on a dismissal of traditionally trained scholars and an appraisal of self-educated, grassroots intellectuals.

My Life in Search of Africa. From grassroots historians to organic intellectuals

  • 38 Clarke, John Henrik, “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Paper (...)

35In the draft presented in Washington of the ideological framework of AHSA, John Henrik Clarke precisely insisted on a figure, central to the organization, that is the “scholar-activist”. In the paper, members of the AHSA are described not as intellectuals or simple scholars, they are a set of “scholar-activists” who can not imagine their position as intellectuals being removed from social realities and political actions. Therefore, John Henrik Clarke’s 1970 piece concludes with the sentence : “It will be our function as scholar-activists to put the component of our heritage together to weld an instrument of liberation38.”

  • 39 James, CLR., “The New Africanism in Political Perspective”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Fold (...)

36One of the issues of the Washington D.C. meeting was then to define what a scholar-activist could be. Different papers suggested different answers. In CLR James’ presentation, the scholar-activist becomes, before anything else, a Pan-African activist who is the recipient of a heritage of Black activism. Therefore, members of the AHSA are thought of as the children or cousins of WEB Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. They are going to be “in the lead of all changes and all changes will be made according to their will39.”

  • 40 Rodney, Walter, “New perspectives on the history of African peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Bo (...)
  • 41 ibid.
  • 42 Rodney, Walter, “New perspectives on the history of African peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Bo (...)

37Walter Rodney expands on that reflection building a real typology of the kinds of intellectuals needed for the Black liberation and arguing for the building of multifaceted intellectuals. First, there is the historian. But according to Rodney, the historian “can only lay the groundwork40.” Then, there is the political activist who is on the side of the action. For Rodney, a historian can also be an activist. “One can of course be other than just a historian. A man is free, a woman is free to have as many facets as he or she decides. The historian is free to pick up a gun, but in that sense he is not acting as a historian41.” Then there is third category that Rodney refers to as the “scientist”. These scientists are skilled intellectuals whose actions are concrete and who very often are educators. “In Black studies”, Rodney explains “we have to involve a lot of people who are not professional historians. Because we don’t want too many professional historians anyway. What we ought to be training our people to do in our various Black studies programs is to be scientists, to get the things that are necessary and at the same time to evolve historical perspective. This means a certain amount of amateur historians but there is nothing wrong with that42.”

38John Henrik Clarke’s presentation at the conference drew upon an autobiographical statement (later published as My life in search of Africa). Clarke tried to use his own experience to show how a self-trained scholar can go on a mission “to write the missing pages of history”, build Afrocentric curriculum while staying connected to grassroots activism. In a lot of ways, John Henrik Clarke’s portrayal of himself becomes the ideal portrayal of a Black intellectual and the perfect image of the Black intellectual tradition in itself.

  • 43 Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and R (...)

39Let us go back to Clarke’s presentation and to his career. John Henrik Clarke was born on January 1rst 1915 in Union Springs Alabama. He was the oldest son of a sharecropper family. At age 7, John moved with his family to Columbus Georgia where he began attending school. In school, Clarke explains that he was “the leader of a group of people, these students were called the dark brigade, as against the light brigade, the children of middle class families.”. “I was the first dark child to ring the bell for recess”, Clarke reminds. This was my first introduction to power. I grew up with a sense of power and I knew it was Black power43.”

  • 44 Ibid., 1994.

“This search of power led me to a search for a better definition of myself as a human being… One day, I decided I would do something exceptional, above anything else that ever been done in the school. I decided that I would deliver a lecture on the role of African people in ancient history. I went to a White man that I worked for who had a very good library. This man told me and he was very kind about it, John, I am very sorry, you came from a people that has no history, but if you persevere and if you obey laws, you’ll make history and then he paid me the highest compliment that a White man could pay a Black man when I was growing up. One day you might be a great Negro like Booker T Washington44.”

40Clarke tends to describe that interaction as one of the founding act of his career as a self-made historian. He then explains how he went on to look for articles, books that would prove the White man wrong or at least that would give him some sense of history. Clarke explained that his life changed when one day he found “quite by accident” in a book called “The New Negro” an essay written by “a Puerto-Rican of African descent with a German sounding name” Arturo Schomburg. This essay “The Negro Digs Up his Past” not only provided Clarke with information about his African origins but also convinced him that he had to study his history, to dig up his past.

41In 1933, John Henrik Clarke left Georgia by freight train and went to Harlem, New York. In his Washington D.C. presentation, Clarke explains that once in Harlem, one of his obsessions was to find Arturo Schomburg. “In the pursuit of this, says Clarke, I finally found Arturo Schomburg :

  • 45 Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and R (...)

“I went to the 135th street library and I found this man. I said I want to know the history of all of my people and I want to know it right now. Sit down said Schomburg. What you are calling Negro and African history is nothing but the missing pages of world history. Son. Go study your oppressor, go study the people who stole your history and when you have a general knowledge of your oppressor, I can tell you a better knowledge of yourself45.”

  • 46 Ibid. 1994.

42After that first meeting, John Henrik Clarke joined study circles such as the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers’ Workshop. He studied history and literature at NYU as well as the New School but he never obtained a diploma. Clarke liked in that regard to say that he trained himself in libraries and in very well chosen used bookstores. It is also the influence of major African American thinkers that helped him in his growth. “I grew up in Harlem when Dr. Schomburg was alive, when J.A. Rogers was alive, when Leo Hansberry was alive. So I am fortunate enough to have grown up and being trained by my Black masters46.”

  • 47 Ibid., 1994.

43For John Henrik Clarke this training by Black masters is the reason why it “is so important for me to give back, especially to Black students”. In 1962, Clarke started his career of educator-activist within the HARYOU ACT (Harlem youth Opportunities Unlimited) an organization founded by African American psychologist and civil rights activist Kenneth Clarke. It is in that organization, that John Henrik Clarke began to “give back”. He built curriculum for the purpose of helping African American children in their attempt to better understand who they are and where they come from. He saw as his mission to transmit the “heritage” that his Black masters taught him. “Heritage, he says, is how a people use their talent to create a history that give them memories that they can respect and use to command the respect of others.” Clarke’s presentation ends with a sentence that he will frequently use after 1970 : “a peoples’ relationship to their heritage and their history is the same as the relationship of a child to its mother47.”

44When John Henrik Clarke spoke at the 1970 AHSA conference, he had just left the HARYOU ACT and was starting teaching at Hunter College Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department. He had not yet become a professor though and wasn’t the department chair as he would soon become. While reading his paper, Clarke tried to emphasize on his own position as a scholar-activist. According to him, there are various facets to that type of intellectual. A Black scholar-activist is, for him, an intellectual that 1. Comes from a lineage of Black intellectuals, those intellectuals that Clarke refers to as his “Black masters.” 2. Has always imagined history as a provider for identity, pride and liberation for his people. 3. Has cherished grassroots training rather than school and university. Clarke dropped out school in 9th grade and remained at that time a little distant from student activism on campus.

  • 48 Marable, Manning, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower. Intellectuals confront the African American Expe (...)
  • 49 Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith Geoffrey, Selection from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, N (...)

45In other words, the type of intellectuals defined by Clarke, the one that he cherishes and he likes to consider himself as an inheritor of are self-trained and political. In a way, they are the 1970’s equivalents of what Manning Marable48 would later call, after Gramsci, “African American organic intellectuals”. As a reminder, Antonio Gramsci49 saw a distinction between “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals, usually brought up in traditional intellectual environments are thought to be disinterested and to rise in the name of reason and truth above sectarian or topical interests. They are tied to their institutions and to their societal hegemonic order. On the other hand, “organic intellectuals” speak for the interest of a specific class. They were raised intellectually in that class and are the proponents of counter-hegemonic ideas and ambitions.

  • 50 Marable, Manning, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower. Intellectuals confront the African American Expe (...)

46According to Manning Marable, African American organic intellectuals are then “African Americans who were not trained in traditional universities but who had a critical understanding of their world and communicated their ideas to Black audience50”. These intellectuals are “street trained”, “politically involved”, searching for the liberation of their community and maybe more importantly are the recipient of a Black tradition in history that developed outside of Academia, that was never officially recognized, that was often stolen from them and that the African Heritage Studies Association is here to represent and to claim. African American organic intellectuals have then turned Gramsci’s Marxists understanding of intellectuals into a racialist one. They are the voice of a race as opposed to the one of a class.

47It is then interesting to note that the expression “organic intellectuals”, that Clarke did not use in 1970 (he talked of “scholar-activist”) will soon be completely accepted in the Black community and more precisely in Black activist circles. It is now used in the African Heritage Studies Association. In an interview I recently conducted in New York City with Abdul Nanji, a linguist who acted between 2002 and 2006 as the president of the African Heritage Studies Association, Nanji insisted on the organization’s roots in what he called “the organic intellectual tradition”. “The people we are trying to attract in AHSA, he said, are organic intellectuals who have strong connection with the community and can build a bridge between the university and the people”.

Conclusion

48In this paper I tried to demonstrate how out of the African Studies Association grew a Pan-African organization of Black scholars. Politically oriented, the association tried to define a new way of making history and gave its own definition of a Black intellectual tradition that always connected history and social sciences with political action and identity searching. Self-trained for most of them, the first members of AHSA often transitioned to academic settings. But even in that position, they always cherished and presented their “Black” training as the only valuable in their search for the “real” history of Africans throughout the world.

49After the meeting at Howard University, the AHSA went through various crises. At stake was mostly its difficulty to act and to significantly interfere in US policies in Africa. Nevertheless, the organization still exists to this day with only a two years interruption between 1989 and 1992. After John Henrik Clarke, Cornel University Professor James Turner became the head of the organization. He was followed in 1976 by Ronald Walters.

50In 1975, members of the AHSA were able to take a trip to Ethiopia to attend the African Congress there. Welcomed by emperor Haile Selassie, Clarke tended to describe this visit as a victory during which AHSA was considered as the only official association of English speaking Africanists as opposed to the ASA. The trip was also a first occasion for many of them to actually discover the African continent.

51However, after the 1975 highlight of the African congress, it seems that the organization had less and less effect on Caribbean and African scholar communities. Its membership tended to be more and more US oriented and its discourse switched from Pan-Africanism to more internal aspects of US political life. Under the leadership of Prof. Shelby Lewis of Clarke University, the AHSA is currently going through major renovations. During their last annual meeting in October 2015 in New York City, members of AHSA proclaimed the needed renewal of the organization, emphasizing on its Pan-African political agenda and on its goal to recreate scholarly and political links with the continent and the Caribbean. Diminished by internal conflicts, AHSA seems to be today on a new track, basing its discourses mainly on a reproduction of its 1960’s intellectual framework.

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Bibliographie

Aldridge, Delores P., Out of the revolution. The development of Africana studies, New York, Lexington books, 2003

Clarke, John Henrik, “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center Monograph Series, 1994.

Gibbs, James L., “The Gibbs Report”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 20-23.

Guedj, Pauline, “The Transnationalization of the Akan religion : Religion and Identity among the U.S. African American community”, Religions, 2015, 6(1), p. 24-39.

Guedj, Pauline (ed.), “Afrocentrismes américains”, special issue of the journal Civilisations, 2009, p. 58-1.

Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith Geoffrey, Selection from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York, International Publishers, 1971.

Howe, Stephen, Afrocentrism. Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, London, Verso, 1998.

James, CLR., “The New Africanism in Political Perspective”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 20, 1970.

Lynch, Holly, “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

Marable, Manning, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower. Intellectuals confront the African American Experience, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000.

Martin, William G. and West, Michael Oliver, “The Ascent, Triumph and Disintegrating of the Africanist Enterprise, USA” in Martin, William G. and West, Michael Oliver Out of One, Many Africas. Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa, University of Illinois Press, p. 85-110, 1999.

Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, Afrotopia. The Roots of African American Popular History, Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Onwuachi, Chike, “Africanism. Towards a New Definition”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 21, 1970.

Resnick, Idrian N., “Crisis in African studies”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 14-15.

Rodney, Walter, “New perspectives on the history of African peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

Sklar, Richard L.,“African studies at Montreal”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 10-12.

Skinner, Elliott, “African Heritage Reappraise”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 19, 1970.

Skinner, Elliott, “African studies, 1955-1975 : An Afro-American Perspective”, Issue : Journal of opinion, 1976, vol. 6, 2-3, p. 57-67.

Turner, James and Murapa, Rukudzo, “Africa : Conflict in Black and White”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 13-14.

Turner James, “Introduction”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 20, 1970.

Van Den Berghe, Pierre, “Report of the 1969 Crisis”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 8-9.

Walker, Clarence, We can’t go home again. An argument about Afrocentrism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wallerstein, Immanuel, “Africa, America and the Africanists”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 12-13.

Zeleza Paul, “The past and future of African studies and area studies”, Ufahumu 25(2), 1997, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2230b25k

Archival materials

John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folders 2, 7, 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 37, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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Notes

1 Howe, Stephen, Afrocentrism. Mythical pasts and Imagined Homes, London, Verso, 1998, p. 61.

2 Walker, Clarence, We can’t go home. An argument about afrocentrism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

3 Guedj, Pauline, “The transnationalization of the Akan religion : Religion and Identity among the U.S. African American Community”, Religions, 2015, 6(1), p. 24-39.

4 The debates around “Afrocentrism” arouse in American and European Academia at the end of the 1990’s. It featured, on the one side, proponents of an afrocentered history of the Black continent and its diaspora, who claimed the need to change the focus in African studies from an outsider and Eurocentric perspective to an insider and African point of view. Among that school of thought, scholars such as Molefi Asante, Maulana Karenga, Marimba Ani and Théophile Obenga have been prolific in their writings and attempt to demonstrate their methodology. On the other side, a set of scholars criticized this racialized vision of social sciences focusing on certain aspect of the afrocentric thought such as the Blackness of ancient Egypt or the psychological understanding of race and melanin. Among the stronger opponents of “Afrocentrism”, appeared such academics as Mary Lefkowitz, Clarence Walker, Stephen Howe and François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar. In their critique, these scholars often used the expression “Afrocentrism” challenged by those they considered as afrocentric. The present paper will use the word “Afrocentism” when mentioning the 1990’s debates and choose expressions such as “Afrocentric ideas” or “ideologies” when discussing the work of John Henrik Clarke and AHSA. The expression afrocentricity will not be mentioned here as it concerns precisely the methodology created in 1980’s by historian and Black studies professor Molefi Asante. For an analysis of the debates around Afrocentrism in the US as well as in Europe, see Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, Afrotopia. The roots of African American Popular History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998 and Guedj, Pauline (ed.), « Afrocentrismes américains », Civilisations, 2009, 58-1.

5 See for Instance Aldridge, Delores P., Out of the revolution. The development of Africana studies, New York, Lexington books, 2003, Biondi, Martha, The Black Revolution on Campus, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2012, Zeleza Paul, “The past and future of African studies and area studies”, Ufahumu 25(2), 1997, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2230b25k, and mostly Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the Africanist enterprise, USA” in Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, Out of One, Many Africas. Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa, University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 85-110, whose work will be often quoted and referred to in the first part of this paper, which necessarily addresses the inception of AHSA.

6 Biondi, Martha, The Black Revolution on Campus, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2012.

7 In April 1968, a group of Black students of Sir George William University filed a complaint against a biology professor who, according to their accusation, was systematically failing Black and Asian students. Although the claims were received by the dean of the university, the general feeling among students was that it was not looked into seriously. In January 1969, after a rally organized on campus, a group of 200 students decided to occupy the university’s computer room. The occupation led to violent interactions between the police and the protesters and the arrest of many students. According to historian David Austin, the Sir George Williams Affair, took place within a larger context of Black and Caribbean activism in Montreal and Canada. The riot followed the creation of the Caribbean Conference Committee as well as the Congress of Black Writers of 1968. Among the participants in these organizations and events, a few were strongly connected to the creators of AHSA. It is the case of such scholars and activists as Walter Rodney, CLR James, Robert Hill and Richard B. Moore. For more on the creation of a Canadian Black Power, see Austin, David, “All roads led to Montreal : Black Power, the Caribbean, and the Black radical tradition in Canada”, The Journal of African American History, 2007, vol. 92, 4, p. 516-539.

8 Howe, Stephen, Afrocentrism. Mythical pasts and Imagined Homes, London, Verso, 1998, p. 60.

9 Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the Africanist enterprise, USA” in Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, Out of One, Many Africas. Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa, University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 135.

10 ibid., p. 135.

11 Since the 1970’s, the expression Africana studies has often been favored by scholars involved in the Afrocentric side of Black studies as it emphasizes the essential links between Africa and the diaspora.

12 John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 5, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New York.

13 Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center Monograph Series, 1994, p. 33.

14 John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 7, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

15 Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the Africanist enterprise, USA” in Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, Out of One, Many Africas. Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa, University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 99.

16 Ibid. p. 100.

17 Ibid.

18 ibid. p. 101.

19 Gibbs, James L., “The Gibbs report”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 22.

20 Van Den Berghe, Pierre, “Report of the 1969 Crisis”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 8-9.

21 Sklar, Richard L., “African Studies at Montreal”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, P. 11.

22 Immanuel Wallerstein, then Associate professor in sociology at Columbia University, remained after the Montreal Crisis, one of the few scholars involved in ASA who kept communicating with the AHSA board. Files in the John Henrik Clarke collection at the Schomburg Center include a set of letters exchanged between Wallerstein and Clarke in the early 1970’s. (John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 15-16).

23 James Turner is the founder of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. After John Henrik Clarke, he became the president of AHSA. While a student, James Turner was deeply involved in the Black studies movement and in the building occupation that took place at Northwestern University. On James Turner and the Black studies movement in Chicago, see Biondi, Martha, The Black Revolution on Campus, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2012.

24 Turner, James and Murapa, Rukudzo, « Africa : Conflict in Black and White », Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 14.

25 Resnik, Idrian N., “Crisis in African Studies”, Africa Today, 1969, 16, 5-6, p. 15.

26 Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, “The ascent, triumph and disintegrating of the Africanist enterprise, USA” in Martin, William J. and West, Michael Oliver, Out of One, Many Africas. Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa, University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 101.

27 ibid. p. 101.

28 John Henrik Clarke papers, Box 37, folder 7, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New York.

29 See also Skinner, Elliott, « African Studies, 1955-1975 : An Afro-American Perspective », Issue : Journal of Opinion, vol. 6, 2-3 : 57-67, 1976.

30 John Henrik Clarke papers Box 37, folder 2, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New York.

31 This D.C. conference gathered some of the most influent Pan-African scholars (CLR James, Walter Rodney, John Henrik Clarke, James Turner, Elliott Skinner) but an important missing figure was the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop. Soon after the conference, John Henrik Clarke would engage in a correspondence with Diop. The American scholar will also be instrumental in the publication and translation of Diop’s books in the United States. Clarke always recognized Diop as a major influence in his own writings and in the intellectual project of AHSA.

32 Skinner, Elliott, “African Heritage Reappraised”, John Henrik Clarke papers, Box 39, Folder 19, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, New York, 1970.

33 Turner James, “Introduction”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 20, 1970.

34 Lynch, Holly, “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

35 Adotevi, Stanislas, “The New Africanism in Political Perspective”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 20, 1970.

36 Onwuachi, Chike, “Africanism. Towards a New Definition”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 21, 1970.

37 John Henrik Clarke papers, Box 37, folder 36, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

38 Clarke, John Henrik, “New Perspectives on the History of African Peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

39 James, CLR., “The New Africanism in Political Perspective”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, Folder 20, 1970.

40 Rodney, Walter, “New perspectives on the history of African peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

41 ibid.

42 Rodney, Walter, “New perspectives on the history of African peoples”, John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 37, folder 23, 1970.

43 Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center Monograph Series, 1994.

44 Ibid., 1994.

45 Clarke, John Henrik, My Life in Search of Africa, Ithaca, Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center Monograph Series, 1994.

46 Ibid. 1994.

47 Ibid., 1994.

48 Marable, Manning, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower. Intellectuals confront the African American Experience, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000.

49 Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith Geoffrey, Selection from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York, International Publishers, 1971.

50 Marable, Manning, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower. Intellectuals confront the African American Experience, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 5.

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Pauline Guedj, « Pan-Africanism in the Academia : John Henrik Clarke and the African Heritage Studies Association », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Questions du temps présent, mis en ligne le 10 octobre 2016, consulté le 26 juin 2017. URL : http://nuevomundo.revues.org/69574

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Pauline Guedj

Université Lyon 2, Centre de recherches et d’études anthropologiques (CREA)
Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences CIRHUS (NYU-CNRS, UMI 3199)
Guedjpp@aol.com

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