I've been struggling all weekend to write something worthwhile about Manning Marable. On Saturday, I had the good fortune of receiving a note from Georgia State historian, and former Marable grad assistant, John McMillan, seeking a place to publish his own tribute. I hastily offered this page and McMillan was kind enough to offer his memories. They are as follows:
In hindsight, this is embarrassing to admit, but here
goes. When I first met Manning Marable
in 1996, at age 26, I was nervous.
Partly I was on edge because I was trying to make a big decision: Should
I pursue a Ph.D. in African-American history at either Rutgers or Michigan,
where I'd been offered full funding? Or,
should I go to Columbia (my first choice), with no money upfront, but with some
vague possibility of securing a teaching fellowship down the line?
Months before, Manning had already written me to say that if
I were admitted to Columbia, he'd be keen to take me on as one of his graduate
students. (That was a thrill unto
itself!) Nevertheless, I couldn't help
but wonder (and this is the embarrassing part): did he know I was white? And if so, would he have any doubts about my
commitment to Black Studies, or my intellectual authority to work in the field?
Keep in mind, by then I'd read virtually all of Manning's
major works, including the earlier, more polemical stuff, like How Capitalism
Underdeveloped Black America, where he declared, "Progressive white Americans
must succeed in overturning their own racism."
No problem there, I chuckled. I'd long made a point of challenging racism
in others, and I've always tried (to the best of my ability) never to tolerate
it in myself. But then, he added this:
"Nothing short of a commitment to racial equality and Black
freedom such as that exhibited by the militant white abolitionist John Brown
will be sufficient."
There was only one way to gauge Manning's attitude, and that
was to show up at his office. I made the
haul all the way from mid-Michigan to New York City in my Chevy pick-up
truck. At that point in my life, I'd
never been anywhere near an Ivy League campus.
My first memory of the area around Columbia comes from driving up and
down Broadway, Amsterdam Ave., and perhaps a dozen cross streets in-between,
again and again and again, screaming and pounding on my dashboard over my
inability to find a parking space.
As soon as I met Manning, though, all of my anxiety melted
away. As anyone who knew him would agree, one of his most striking qualities
was his affability. And although I
probably would not have said this in print while he was still alive, the plain
fact is, he really did look a lot like a teddy bear.
One thing I remember from that day is how vigorously he
stressed the fact that he saw himself as both a scholar, and an activist. For him, the two vocations were
inseparable. What's more, he wanted me
to know that when he became the founding director of the Institute for Research
in African American Studies (IRAAS) a few years earlier, he'd envisioned it as
fundamentally a community resource. And
by "community," he pointed out, "I don't mean just Columbia, or even
Morningside Heights." He gestured toward
the window of his 6th floor office, which afforded views to the north and the
east. "We're not in Morningside
Heights! We're in Harlem!"
To this end, he had a remarkable capacity for making time for virtually anyone who wanted something from him, even including the conspiratorial-minded guy with the rusty stains on his shirt (or was it blood?) who would occasionally show up unannounced at Manning's door, asking to bend his ear. Then there was this other fellow: he was never around, except for on the periodic occasions when the Institute would lay out a very nice buffet in honor of some distinguished guest speaker, in which case he would always be there, first in line, testing the capacity of his Styrofoam plates with enormous mounds of chicken wings, mini quiches, cocktail shrimp, and whatever else. (Okay, I'll confess: I once watched as Manning quietly observed this guy from the corner of the room, sighed heavily, and rolled his eyes.)
Manning was also one of the hardest workers in all of academia. In the mid-to-late 1990s, you might recall, a whole corps of "black public intellectuals" was suddenly gaining more exposure than they'd probably ever dreamed of. After a long period during which black scholars were more likely to toil away in obscurity, with their contributions being slighted or overlooked, now at least a few of them - through a combination of intelligence, charisma, and moxie - seemed to be everywhere. And while some celebrated the new visibility of people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, and Michael Eric Dyson, others sensed a certain entrepreneurialism in their approach. Sure, they could all talk a very good game, people used to grouse. Hell, put them in range of a microphone, and they'll talk about anything! But when it came to scholarship, what did they actually do?
That was never quite my own view, but regardless: nobody ever credibly said such a thing about Manning. Sure, he made TV appearances and gave paid lectures (oh, how he must have loved Black History Month). But he was also an author of god-knows-how-many books and articles, the great bulk of which showcased his deep immersion in fields as diverse as history, sociology, political science, economics, and even literature. His new, nearly 600 page opus, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is already being celebrated as an exhaustively researched tome, one that will completely upend our understanding of that fabled leader.
What an incredible exercise in self-restraint it must have been to keep plugging away on that biography for fifteen-odd years, all the while sitting on so many explosive revelations. I remember him excitedly making a few vague allusions to the discoveries he was making, way back in the day. Now we all know just what he was onto.
At the moment, I'm awfully sad that I didn't stay in better touch with Manning in recent years, though I can take some solace from the fact that about six weeks ago, I sent him a warmly inscribed copy of my first monograph. I have so many fond memories of our conversations from the three-year period that I worked for him, but I'll always treasure that first meeting the best. After listening to my concerns, putting me at ease, and making me laugh out loud, he said something I did not expect: "I might be able to help you out."
Five months later, I'd relocated to Manhattan, and I was meeting a considerable portion of my grad school expenses by working as his research assistant. (We collaborated on two books.) Without him, I'm not sure I'd have mustered the courage to go to Columbia, something that later turned out - without question - to be one of the great blessings of my life. And yet whenever I tried to thank Manning for anything - whether for helping to pay for my education, or for buying me a sandwich (as he sometimes did), I always got the same response. He'd shrug, smile impishly, and say, "Hey, what do you expect? I'm a socialist!"
John McMillian is Assistant Professor of history at Georgia State University. His most recent book is Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America (Oxford, 2011).