Manning Marable Remembered as Public Intellectual and Activist

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by Jamal Eric Watson

Dr. Russell Rickford hasn’t quite been the same since learning that his mentor and friend, Dr. Manning Marable, passed away at the age of 60, after suffering from complications from pneumonia.

Marable, who was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, underwent a double lung transplant last summer, but friends thought he was on the rebound toward recovery, eager to celebrate the release of his new book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a project that took him 10 years to research and write.

A self-described Marxist, Marable had a distinguished career in the academy as a social activist and public intellectual. At the time of his death, he held the M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professorship of African American Studies at Columbia University, after serving as the founding director of the university’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies and establishing the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia in 2002.

After writing dozens of books and publishing more than 250 scholarly articles, friends and close associates of Marable say that he was most excited about his latest book, which was released on April 4, 2011.

“He understood this was going to be his magnum opus,” says Rickford,  an assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College. “It’s a remarkable book because it transforms the way we understand Malcolm and it should imbue us with a greater respect for Malcolm’s political and intellectual legacy”

Rickford first met Marable in 2002 after arriving at Columbia as a graduate student. After serving as his dissertation advisor, Marable recently entrusted Rickford to edit and publish Beyond Boundaries: The Manning Marable Reader,  a major collection of his intellectual writings over the past three decades. The reader was released earlier this month.

Rickford is one of Marable’s “intellectual sons and daughters,” as he puts it. It’s a group to whom the the celebrity scholar was never too busy to provide counsel and advice.

In recent days, many of these scholars took to their Facebook and Twitter accounts to remember Marable and pay tribute to a man who helped steer so many of them into the academy. Others are planning formal academic conferences in upcoming weeks and months aimed at promoting and celebrating Marable’s contributions to the field.  His 1983 classic, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America influenced a generation of scholars.

“Manning did more than encourage us,” says Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Princeton University. “He made a way for us. He cleared brush. He extended his protections. He shared his resources with uncompromising generosity. And he did all of this without needing to turn us into his personal collection. He very rarely took credit for our successes despite his important role in all that we were able to do.”

In an interview with Diverse, Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson described Marable as a “brilliant scholar who believed scholars ought to have an activist background.”

Dyson says that Marable was committed to radical democratic principles and genuinely concerned with gender and class inequality.  “Long before the term ‘public intellectual’ became the rage, Marable showed us just what engaged academics worth their salt and degrees should be up to: offering sharp analysis of the social behaviors and political practices that shape or distort our democratic heritage, while encouraging the powerless to take on the mighty with pen and protest.”

Those who have read Marable’s latest book on Malcolm X say it will likely stir up controversy, but seeks to contextualize the Black leader.

“Some people will not like it, but [Marable] was not about hero worship,” says Rickford.  ”Marable loved Black folk. He loved us in all of our iterations and complexities and he would tell us about ourselves.”

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Marable graduated from Earlham College in 1971 and received a master’s degree in American history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctorate in American history from the University of Maryland. He taught at Cornell, Fisk, Colgate, Ohio State and the University of Colorado before arriving at Columbia.

The Marable family is planning to hold a public memorial service on May 27 at a location to be announced. Marable leaves behind a wife, Dr. Leith Mullings, three children and two stepchildren.

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