The John Henrik Clarke
Ancestral Shield

To be dedicated during Black History Month. Please revisit us for an update.


This commemorative piece, created to celebrate the 83rd birthday of our beloved John Henrik Clarke, is a physical representation of the essence of a life lived in the highest tradition of African culture. It will be gifted to and housed with the John Henrik Clarke Africana collection at the Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center. Since time immemorial, the circle has represented the entity of life that is without beginning or end. As an ancestral shield, 42" in diameter, the foundation use of wood and metals such as copper, silver, brass and gold represent Dr. Clarke's understanding of the power, which emanates from responsible use of the natural and simple things. His deep respect for the rich supply of elements drawn from Mother Earth�African ancestral land�is also symbolized with the inlays of amber, chevron beads and cowrie shills.

Baba Clarke's life work and living has been manifest by a divine calling and quest for truth and justice articulated by influences in Dr. Clarke's religious and philosophical beliefs. A cross speaks to his early Christian awareness that gave birth to the classic short story, The Boy Who Painted Christ Black. That Christian symbols co-exist with his discovery of his African spirituality affirmed by Gye Nyame (none except God) and the Ankh (life eternal). This configuration of religious and philosophical symbolism is his awareness of God and our god-selves, is completed with the Sankofa giving voice to the trinity and transubstantiation of life's essence�matter and spirit; theory and practice; life and death. In his quest for knowledge, he returned to the source, sought and recovered those essential truths to which he committed his gifts and talents as a voice of the African world people. Thus, the chevron beads, one of the oldest stones of the earth symbolize the talking drum. From the hearts intelligence, the spirit of God and the voice of Pan Africanism are heard.

The cowrie shells, associated with water and signs of a prosperous journey, fertility and rites of passage, reminds us of the holocaust The Middle Passage, endured by his ancestors. Yet, we're still here. We must always remember those who went before us with each and every sunrise and sunset represented by the amber shield.

As the circles within circles are symbolic of his eternal life, so are they symbolic of history as the clock of the people. History is spoken in poetry, short story, prose, children's stories and fiction. So from the intelligent mind and heart of John Henrik Clarke, the amulet placed in the center of the work contains artifacts of a more personal nature: one of his pencils with which he always wrote, an eraser representing his awareness of his human fallibility, a tie tack and other personal objects. Beneath one level of metal can be seen a piece of cloth which he wore. The mask and gold weights are attributes to his claim as an African son, whose voice is heard by children yet to be born.

The spears honor the African warrior's indomitable spirit to protect and fight for the truth. Baba Clarke waged the battle to regain the full expression of the African mind�not only within himself, but also within the minds of millions of Africans.

Michell Melson,
Principal Artist
Dr. Iva E. Carruthers
January 1, 1998