For Manning


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.)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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