John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (1933-2020)
The passing away of renowned poet, playwright, essayist and eminent professor of literature, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, like the measured transience of sages, has depleted the shrinking forest of literary minds and intellectual activists in the Nigerian public space. Gifted with the grace of ripe old age, J. P. Clark, 86, lived to fruitfully engage with three generations of Nigerian writers and literary enthusiasts as well as students who tapped from his creative ingenuity to critically engage society.
An announcement made on behalf of the family by Prof. C. C. Clark and Mr. Ilaye Clark, and shared to a section of the academic community, stated thus: “Emeritus Professor of Literature and renowned writer, Prof. John Pepper Clark, has finally dropped his pen in the early hours of today, Tuesday, 13 October, 2020.” Reports stated that J. P. Clark breathed his last in a Lagos hospital “in comfort of his wife, (Prof. Ebun Clark) children and sibling around him.”
With Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, J. P. Clark is classed amongst the fabled quartet of Nigerian literature and the first generation of Nigerian writers. Using the privilege of colonial education, mother-tongue literacy and versatile native culture, Clark’s generation of writers attempted to subject the prevalent hegemonic western intellectual tradition to ontological scrutiny. Against the background of a rich and vibrant cultural milieu, he exposed the infelicities inherent in the Euro-modernist re-reading of African literature and their attendant cultural menaces. In this way, he inaugurated a new kind of Nigerian poetry in English.
Born on December 6, 1933 into two illustrious Izon families, Bekederemo and Adomi, of Kiagbodo in present day Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State, J. P. Clark, who enjoyed longevity, perceptible health of mind and body as his elder brothers Ambassador B. A. Clark and the outspoken Chief E. K. Clark, prepared himself early in life for the pedigree of accomplishment he enjoyed as a writer, poet and playwright. After his early education in Native Administration Schools in Okrika and Jeremi in current Rivers State and Delta State respectively, he proceeded to Government College Ughelli and the University College Ibadan as a Government and State Scholar.
Reputed to have read every literature book in his secondary school’s library, Clark became a cynosure of the public when, at the University College Ibadan where he studied English, he edited the Student Union’s magazine, The Beacon and became the founding editor of the then influential poetry journal of the university, The Horn. As editor of The Horn, Clark attempted a casual romance with the much celebrated idea of Negritude – a pan Africanist ideology fostered by Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire – until the virulent criticism of Soyinka ushered in a floodgate of denouncement that permanently arrested the exuberant Negritude sentimentalism. The Horn was significant in the career path towed by young Clark, for it honed his budding African nationalistic consciousness and teased out the lyrical lore domiciled in his fecund creative mind, in the same way it introduced his aforementioned confreres as arrowheads of modern Nigerian literature in English.
Upon graduation from the University College, Clark joined the Nigerian press corps, working first as an Information Officer in the Western Ministry of Information, Ibadan, and later as Features Editor and Editorial Writer in the Lagos-based Express Group of newspapers. Thereafter, armed with a Parvin Fellowship from Princeton University, in the United States of America, Clark, the artist, in 1963, settled for a life of academics. He started first as a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, and later in 1965 as Lecturer Grade One at the Department of English, University of Lagos, where he rose seven years later to become Head and Professor of English.
In the subsequent years as an academic, Clark taught in universities in America, occupying Visiting Professorship positions in Wesleyan University, Lincoln University, Yale University and the University of Ibadan. He later had a voluntary retirement in 1980 as a Professor of English, University of Lagos.
While he was in the academia, Clark remained a distinguished literary artist, editing the journal Black Orpheus with Professor Abiola Irele, and also churning out scores of outstanding masterpieces that have been categorised into poetry, drama, essays, travel memoir, documentary films and music. Prominent amongst these are the nostalgic ‘Night Rain’, ‘Abiku’, ‘Ibadan’, ‘Olokun’, which are favourites in school anthologies; the nationalistic epic Ozigi Saga; the politically flavoured Casualities, State of the Union, Mandela and Other Poems, All for Oil, and The Raft, which critics have adjudged a parable of Nigeria.
In furtherance of scholarship in the letters, the trio of Chinua Achebe, J. P. Clark and Wole Soyinka in concert with Professors Emeriti Ayo Bamgbose, J. S. Ade-Ajayi, Adiele Afigbo, and Adeboye Babalola founded the Nigeria Academy of Letters (NAL). Clark, who was still writing until his death, was manager, with his wife Professor Ebun Clark, of an educational consulting outfit, and proprietor of Nigeria’s first English performing theatre company, PEC Repertory Theatre. He was also with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka recipient of the Nigeria National Order of Merit (NNOM). Clark was also awarded the Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) Honoris Causa by the University of Lagos.
J. P. Clark, whose remains have been interred in his Kiagbodo home-town, had requested in his poem ‘My Last Testament’ that he be hastily laid to rest without much ado.
JUDGING by his individual achievement and its ripple effect on modern Nigerian literature and scholarship in general, the present generation has a lot to learn from his creative enterprise, and the legacies they have stood for and lived by. J. P. Clark’s prodigious creativity is a reminder that the philosophy of art for art’s sake is functionally a misfit in a beleaguered society like Nigeria’s, whose gifted literati must salvage its people from vulpine leadership. The Nigerian society still re-acts the structural injustice narrativised by his essays and poem ‘Ivbie’: the socio-economic paradox of the Niger Delta region, which his poems and plays masterfully reveal, are still with us today. Thus, the literature of protest and struggle, which, he and his kindred spirits framed over our socio-political front, about 60 years ago, is still relevant in today’s Nigeria. The message to present Nigerian youths, who themselves have already awaken from the shackles of docility, fear and indifference by virtue of the EndSARS protests, is that literature acts a veritable vehicle for social engagement by securing our collective memory.
Notwithstanding his controversial shift from a short-lived Negritude acolyte to a towering principal in the colonial academe, Clark elevated the universe of his experience into a raw material for the cultivation of Africa’s literary presence. Though described as an aloof non-activist, Clark had a style of covert literary operation that was more productive than a march of a thousand weapon-carrying militants. The effervescence dispersed by his copious repertoire of poems, plays and essays stirred oncoming generations of writers into a radical movement of literary militancy and environmental advocacy, all with the aim of turning Nigeria’s intractable political malaise into the object of their literary engagement.
The J. P. Clark phenomenon orientates the present generation of academics, researchers and writers to further problematise the relationship between literature and our national integrity. It is for this reason that the J. P. Clark Centre, endowed by the Delta State Government, at the Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, is a commendable initiative for the promotion of literary scholarship, which other universities and state governments should emulate.
As the global literary community celebrates J. P. Clark’s transition to the Pantheon of thespians and muses, the present generation of Nigerian writers should be instructed, by the results of his sacrifice and commitment, his zeal of scholarship and purposeful creative ingenuity, to interrogate the country’s regressively ossified social existence.