The remembrances started almost immediately, as was appropriate. When a giant has fallen, there is immense thunder. Manning Marable was that gentle giant of a person who had a tremendous impact on thousands of people, both as individuals as well as on countless groups and organizations.
More than anything else, I have to begin by noting that Manning was my friend. In fact, he was one of my best friends, someone I viewed as a big brother. We spoke regularly, worked on projects together, and saw each other when we could. We rarely disagreed on anything of significance, but when we did we were always able to put such disagreements aside because our friendship was something that we both cherished.
Manning’s impact cannot be overstated. Since his passing on April 1, I have read countless e-mails and spoken with numerous individuals who have described the impact that Manning had on their lives. The common theme was that Manning got them thinking about the USA and the world in a different manner. He raised questions and offered insights in a way that resonated with the uninitiated activist.
Manning Marable was one of the most prolific leftwing authors of our time. Though he devoted the lion’s share of his scholarship to the black experience and, in many ways, modeled himself on the work and practice of W.E.B. Du Bois, Manning could not be put in a “box.” He could and did engage in discussions and commentary on US electoral politics, US foreign policy and the future of socialism. When he touched any subject, he would ultimately relate it to race and the question of the black experience. Yet it was also the case that when he touched upon “black subjects,” he would relate them to the larger context.
Though Manning took W.E.B. Du Bois as a chief inspiration and example, they were very different people. Growing up I would hear stories about Du Bois from the family of my great-grandfather (William S. Braithwaite) who taught at Atlanta University with Du Bois and knew him very well. They said that Du Bois was not very approachable, keeping a distance from students and many others. This was the complete opposite of Manning. He was extremely approachable and never treated someone with whom he disagreed as a jackass, but rather listened to their point of view and took them on. This characteristic made Manning a must-see person for so many students who he taught and mentored.
Manning’s importance lies in several areas. First, he believed in the essential need for scholarship and activism. For Manning, activism did not play second fiddle to scholarship. Contrary to even many progressive academics, Manning did not look down his nose at social movement activists, but rather promoted their importance and at the same time encouraged them to become theorists. Manning, whether through his journal Souls or other instruments, supported and encouraged the writing of activists as well as emerging scholars. He wanted his students, and the broader academic community, to learn from the actual work of practitioners on the ground while also not allowing activists to remain stuck in the limits of their individual work.
Second, Manning fully appreciated the necessity for the building and sustaining of left-wing and progressive organizations. This is something that also demarcated him from many other members of the academy but put him in good company with Du Bois. For most of his life, Manning believed in, and practiced, the importance of building infrastructure as a means of translating ideas into practice. While for many academics, including progressive ones, the articulation of ideas seems to be enough, this was never the case with Manning. When I first heard of Manning he was connected with the Democratic Socialists of America, ultimately becoming a vice-chair. When we first met, he was also involved in the creation of what came to be known as the National Black Independent Political Party, a formation that existed in the early 1980s and grew out of the National Black Political Assembly process. Years later he was one of the initiators of what came to be known as the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, an effort started in the early 1990s that included former members of the Communist Party (he was not one) plus socialists from other tendencies who sought to create a new socialist current in the USA.
Manning’s emphasis on organization, however, became very personal for me when he; his wife, Dr. Leith Mullings; Dr. Barbara Ransby; and Dr. Abdul Alkalimat and I initiated discussions that ultimately led to the formation of the Black Radical Congress. What struck me about Manning is that he not only helped initiate this effort but was a great partner of mine and others in building the organization. Even after he stepped down from a leadership position in the BRC in 2001 to concentrate on the writing of his book on Malcolm X, he never downplayed the continued importance of organization. I was always amazed that he was able to find the time to focus on building organizations while remaining engaged in significant scholarship.
Third, Manning was nothing short of obsessed with entering into mainstream discourses from the left. When people comment in amazement about Manning’s prolific writing, it is important to note that Manning wrote for many audiences, but not all at once. He would write specifically for left-wing audiences, but he did not stop there. He was most focused on introducing a left-wing analysis to the so-called mainstream world. His columns in African-American newspapers that he wrote religiously were never preachy but offered a left-wing commentary to a very broad audience. In fact, I would argue that Manning saw it as his duty to engage the mainstream rather than remain trapped in a sectarian mindset.
A remembrance of Manning would not be complete without mentioning his partner and wife, Dr. Leith Mullings. Leith, a scholar in her own right based at the City University of New York, was the ideal partner for Manning. Though quite reserved, she is not one to suffer fools easily and will not sit back and defer to someone on matters that are either important to her or where she has disagreements. Watching the two of them interact was delightful, not only because they learned from one another but because the depth of their love and respect for one another was limitless.
I knew that death was the stranger by the side of the road awaiting Manning. The question, as Manning fought the good fight against sarcoidosis, was how long would he be able to avoid the encounter? Manning was determined to get his book on Malcolm X completed, come hell or high water, but I had this ominous sense early in 2010 that he did not believe that he had that much more time left. I half-joked with him about hurrying up to get his lung transplant completed and wrapping up the writing of the Malcolm X bio because there was a book that I wanted to write with him. Manning’s response was cool and indefinite in a way that conveyed, more than anything else, a subtle lack of certainty as to what would happen next.
Manning Marable completed the work of his life, the definitive biography of Malcolm X. Having read the manuscript, I can tell you that this is a blockbuster. I am so sorry that my friend and colleague did not live long enough to bask in the attention that he so deeply deserved.
We’ll see you on the other side, big bro.