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).