Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Michigan) has traveled a turbulent and circuitous route from the mean streets of Detroit to Capitol Hill. He almost didn’t make it.
His early years are filled with painful memories that form an almost visible black cloud around him whenever he struggles to recall, or better yet, forget them. But Clarke, 54, who toppled longtime Black lawmaker Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in 2010, says that those memories also are what inspire him to serve as his district’s fiercest advocate through his efforts to stop foreclosures and attract investment in education and job creation. He believes that his past helped prepare him for the ongoing warfare on Capitol Hill, which he says is just as cutthroat as any “street hustle.”
“That’s the reason I’m in this office right now. I know what people are going through and have spent my entire adult life trying to run away from that,” Clarke told BET.com.
Detroit was once hailed as the nation’s auto manufacturing capital and the home to the infamous Motown sound—a city where African-Americans could aspire to the middle-class American dream that eluded many Black communities. But it has always been gritty, and during Clarke’s formative years, he watched friend after friend succumb to the temptations of heroin and crime.
His Muslim Indian-American father worked in the once-thriving auto industry’s foundries, where most people of color were employed, and whose unhealthy environment ultimately led to his death when Clarke was just eight years old. He was raised by his staunchly Christian African-American mother who earned her income as a school crossing guard and later as a housekeeper. She liked to play the numbers and saved every dollar she won.
“These jokers up here talk about food stamps and things like that, but that’s how my mother bought her groceries,” Clarke said.
Still, Clarke didn’t realize that he and his single-parent household were poor until he received an opportunity through the organization A Better Chance to attend the prestigious New England prep school Exeter Academy. He wasn’t able to reconcile the stark differences between his old neighborhood and the life he’d been thrust into and returned home to Detroit. After being kicked out of one of Detroit’s better public schools, he attained a GED through an adult-education program. But Clarke’s mother wanted him to attend college and used her numbers money to pay for him to earn a regular high school diploma at another prep school. He ultimately won a scholarship to Cornell University, where he studied painting and art.
However, tragedy struck Clarke’s life again when his mother died unexpectedly during his first semester. He hung in there for two years before returning to the Detroit home he’d inherited.
“Once she died, my life changed forever because I never felt secure,” Clarke said. “I always felt like whatever I valued and cherished I could just lose.”
Clarke struggled to earn a living, “hustling,” he says, and nearly ended up homeless until an old family friend of his parents scared him straight by telling him he’d end up on Skid Row if he didn’t get it together. He fought for reinstatement at Cornell because it was important to finish where he’d started, and earned a law degree from Georgetown University. Clarke also worked as a congressional aide to Congressional Black Caucus founding member John Conyers (D-Michigan), with whom he now serves in Congress.
He reluctantly and only rarely shares his story in the hope that young African-Americans struggling with double-digit employment rates in a crippling economy will not only not lose faith, but also hold their congressional representatives accountable for fighting on their behalf.
“You would think that because I’m a member of Congress now, I should be fine talking about all that, but all of the qualities that I have now that make me an effective advocate I had back then and I almost didn’t make it,” said Clarke, who wants his constituents to know that he works for them and that they can control their lives through their government.
He believes that once they realize that, they will demand more for their communities, much like voters in more affluent cities do.
“I want them to expect efficiency and effectiveness. My power is totally based on my constituents recognizing their power,” Clarke said. “If they protest [disparities], it gives me more power to do something.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Hansen Clarke)