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September 23, 2014

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Remembering Manning Marable

Comments (8)

Manning Marable modeled the kind of intellectual who kept up with developments in his discipline, responded and informed them and then utilized those insights to produce and disseminate knowledge that would be of value to people engaged in struggle for social change. That is why he is as widely read by activists and organizers as he is by graduate students.

The untimely death of my colleague and friend Manning Marable provides the first of many opportunities to meditate and reflect upon his life and his legacy. I first encountered Manning through his writing. Books like Race, Reform and Rebellion and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America gave me a framework and vocabulary for understanding dimensions of the Black Freedom Struggle beyond conventional narratives of the Civil Rights Movement.

Later, after having read his work and listened to him on numerous panels and lectures, I finally had the privilege of getting to know him when he helped to recruit me to Columbia University. Manning had come to Columbia in 1993 to establish the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS). Under his leadership the Institute grew into one of the finest programs in the field.

What distinguished IRAAS was its location in Harlem, its early focus on the Social Sciences and its core philosophy of creating a space where scholars, students and members of the broader communities of Harlem and New York could engage in genuine debate, dialogue and conversation. The opportunity to work at the Institute, to share in and help to build that vision was a dream come true for me. I have never encountered anyone with his singular focus and boundless well of energy. Steadfast in his vision and generous with his time, Manning was a sheer force of nature.

Scholar, Activist, Mentor, Teacher, Editor, Institution Builder, Manning Marable was one of those rare individuals who succeeded in a number of arenas. His intellectual and political vision and work can be described as nothing less than a calling, one he met with extraordinary drive and consistency and from which he never strayed. Never an academic in the narrowest sense of the word, Manning was an engaged scholar whose writing and research were always addressed to people both inside and outside of the academy.

Remarkably, his devotion to a public beyond the academy in no way detracted him from working tirelessly within it. Manning understood the academy to be an important site where transformative work occurred. He was a beloved and devoted teacher. He relished the classroom. He mentored generations of undergraduates, graduate students, and young professors.

In addition to IRAAS, he built during his career a number of programs in Ethnic and African American Studies. Beginning with his first leadership post in his early twenties, he worked tirelessly with administrators and colleagues to make the university a more equitable place. No, Manning did not choose between the academy and public. He simply saw no separation between the two: A viable research institution was a part of "the public" and had responsibilities to the community in which it resided. For this reason the Institute's conferences took place both on campus and in Harlem institutions.

The opening of a conference on Reparations was held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture while the second day's events took place at Columbia's Law School. A conference on Education and the Prison Industrial Complex had plenary sessions at a high school. Manning brought the public to the academy, but he also brought the academy to the public. He spent tireless hours lecturing at colleges and universities but also at churches and community groups. This was simply a natural trajectory for him.

The dramatic circumstances that surround the release of his magnum opus Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention will yield a great deal of attention. This major work, representing over a decade of research and writing, deserves attention as it is sure to be a definitive interpretation of one of the most significant figures our nation has ever produced.

This book is not the only representation of Manning's brilliance, however. Rather, it is a culmination of a lifetime of scholarship and activism, a larger project devoted to telling the stories of a people engaged in an epic, painful and beautiful struggle for freedom. That story had no better chronicler, that struggle no greater champion than Manning Marable.

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