Born in Jamaica and moved to Toronto at the age of two, Clarke was raised in Toronto and Montreal. A daughter of an engineer and a banker, during a time when Canadian Black History was a story of the shame of African slavery, her interest in social justice had painful origins. “Having grown up in 1970s Toronto as part of the only Black family at our school and not being able to play with other kids in the neighbourhood because we were Black, being called names and ridiculed: all of these things were part of my consciousness as a child,” she says. “Yet, that wasn’t the end. It was the beginning of a lifelong quest to understand the deep roots of structural inequality. It opened my eyes to the banality of exclusion and of sharp edges of Canadian claims to racial innocence, especially in relation to U.S. race relations.”
While studying political science at Concordia University in the mid-to-late 1980s, she was elected by the student body as the first Black co-president of a student political organization in Canada, and steered the university toward divestment of its holdings in apartheid-era South Africa. “In many ways,” she says, “this was a major fight for justice that has always invigorated my work.”
Anthropology gave me the cultural tools to analyze complex processes that didn’t quite make sense through the lens that I had been given to analyze structural inequality.
Her early social justice experiences led to U.S.-based PhD studies in political and legal anthropology, a discipline she found “by accident, in many ways.”
“Anthropology gave me the cultural tools to analyze complex processes that didn’t quite make sense through the lens that I had been given to analyze structural inequality,” she says. “When I moved to the States I not only took courses that helped me answer the kind of political and philosophical questions that interested me but did so with a cohort of others like me and we ate, slept and dreamed our scholarly questions. Together we pushed the limits of conceptual possibility and began to reconceptualize a field that had previously objectified people like me. From there, my life questions and inquiries really took off.”
Clarke’s research has taken her around the world, and her efforts to build capacity both in Africa and the African diaspora have been particularly multifaceted. Her PhD dissertation informed her first book, Mapping Yoruba Networks, which examined the transnational and cultural politics of religious nationalism. Her next book, Fictions of Justice, reflected her shift from the study of transnational religious formations to the study of transnational legal formations and landed her tenure at Yale University — the first Black female in Yale’s 300-year history to be tenured in the anthropology department.
Though someone who certainly has a track record with a life of firsts, she wears that history not as a badge of honour, but always remembering the warrior marks that produce the kind of exclusions that make progress slow going.
When I was a young and starry-eyed undergraduate, I had the aspiration that we could use the law to make social change, but later I realized that social change comes from many avenues and arenas and law was often not the solution but was often the problem. So I studied law to think through its possibilities and also learned about its limitations.
As a legal anthropologist, Clarke has long been concerned with questions of culture and power. With the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation on Anthropological Fieldwork, she has recently co-launched a major project on Radical Humanism in Anthropology with Deborah Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania. By adopting an anthropological humanism that also foregrounds the ethical life of knowledge collaborators, refuses them as knowable “subjects” and presumes that the inner motives and social lives of the acting individual are transparent and can be quantified, her work underway calls for an understanding of human and more than human beings whose life cannot be known simply as cultural units. Instead, she calls for “bricolage, contradiction and the ongoing ways that people and meanings are always becoming and in motion.” To this end she urges the adoption of a “radical humanism” which centres the lived experience of people and moves away from the histories of knowledge extractivism that has defined norms in the field.
She has also conducted extensive research into the challenges posed by her second major area of study: the law.
“When I was a young and starry-eyed undergraduate, I had the aspiration that we could use the law to make social change,” she says, “but later I realized that social change comes from many avenues and arenas and law was often not the solution but was often the problem. So I studied law to think through its possibilities and also learned about its limitations.”
In 2014, Clarke began work as co-director of the African Court Research Initiative (ACRI) — a project that sought to take up the controversies related to the International Criminal Court (ICC), an international court designed to prosecute offenses such as genocide and war crimes. One criticism of the ICC, however, is that it has so far only pursued prosecutions in African countries.
“The ACRI has not demonstrated an understanding of Africa’s post-colonial realities, the issues — from land redistribution to poverty alleviation strategies — are deeply political and complex and require multiple strategies that exceed individualizing one or two leaders and holding them responsible for much larger structural problems.”
If we are to have a hope of building more just and sustainable future for not just the elite few, we must step outside of our most cherished frameworks for understanding our world and see what other worlds can teach us about the aspects of ourselves, our institutions, our economies that constrain human progress.
In her capacity as Technical Advisor to the African Union Legal Counsel from 2015-2019, she helped to shape new legal and political strategies that are part of Africa’s new horizons. “ACRI was really an attempt to support not only local justice mechanisms, but also to help to support the introduction of crimes of concern to the African context: not just political crimes like genocide but also economic crimes, mercenaries and drug trafficking, toxic dumping — the type of economic actions that may lead to political acts that can produce genocide,” she says.
The author of three single authored books and six edited volumes, Clarke will now use her Guggenheim funding to complete her latest. It explores how geospatial technologies — such as drones, satellites and cellphones — are changing how evidence is gathered and human rights secured in war-torn, developing areas of the world. With her current work on a U.S. State Department grant on Early Warning Signals using geospatial technologies in Northern Nigeria to support grassroots communities mobilizing to pre-empt violence, and other projects on the crisis of the missing and the uses of drone and social media evidence to document such violence, Clarke’s work underway represents the cutting edge of legal and political anthropology.
It is the latest example of how Clarke’s analyses of law, anthropology and human rights continue to advance our understandings of what it means to protect, study and seek knowledge for people living in all regions.
Says she: “If we are to have a hope of building more just and sustainable future for not just the elite few, we must step outside of our most cherished frameworks for understanding our world and see what other worlds can teach us about the aspects of ourselves, our institutions, our economies that constrain human progress.”