We have suffered a great loss in the passing of Professor Manning Marable. As my Nation colleague John Nichols wrote yesterday, the coming weeks will be filled with tributes to Manning’s life and work. He was, as John says, “one of America’s truest public intellectuals.”
Manning was an unflinching and breathtakingly prolific scholar whose commitments to racial, economic, gender, and international justice were unparalleled. In decades of weekly columns, hundreds of academic journal articles and a dozen books, Manning has already written his own legacy. But despite the fact that we all have “Manning Marable shelves” in our personal libraries, there are two generations of African-American scholars who will remember him as much for the mentor he was to us as for the research legacy he leaves.
It is still a surprisingly lonely endeavor to be an African-American academic pursuing research on black life. Despite the outward appearance of successful careers, many black social scientists, historians and humanists wage a daily battle for relevance and respect in our departments and on our campuses. The fight begins in graduate school and does not seem to abate even after we have published articles, written books, achieved tenure or garnered professional praise.
In our loneliness and struggle many of us reach out for mentors. It is relatively easy to find senior scholars who will offer encouraging words, well-rehearsed advice and general praise. But Manning managed to do so much more than that. To be a student or a junior faculty member in Manning’s office was to wait for the smile. He would listen intently and seriously as you told him about the project you envisioned, the finding you made or a conclusion you’d drawn. As you spoke, his face was a mask of stillness covering a never-resting intellect just below the surface. It was more than a little intimidating to present an idea to Manning. But if he liked what you were up to or thought you had uncovered a promising direction then his face would crack into a broad and compelling smile that made the whole nerve-wracking experience worth it. If you got the smile then you knew you could keep going.
This was only the most surface way that Manning mentored us. As a student of politics and history, he understood that young race scholars faced steep structural barriers and entrenched academic practices that no amount of well-intentioned professional cheerleading could erase. Instead of just telling us we could do it, Manning helped make “doing it” possible.
As founding director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Manning created a place where students could stretch their intellect in uncoventional ways. He encouraged students to study black life using methods and asking questions that typical disciplinary boundaries so often limit and discourage in our work. His institute was a gathering place for people from all over the world who insisted on critical connections between theory and practice. Through publication of his quarterly journal, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, Manning gave many race scholars their first academic publications. Those early publications were decisive in the careers of many of the best professors in the academy today. Through his regular column "Along the Color Line" Manning gave us permission to and a model for reaching beyond the walls of the academy. He reminded us that our work was about something other than our own profession and that we owed debts to the communities who were the source material of our academic writing.
Manning did more than encourage us. 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.
Manning Marable’s 2002 book is titled The Great Wells of American Democracy. It is a biting and critical text that challenges simplistic heroic narratives of American history, but simultaneously retains profound optimism about the inherent possibilities of the American experiment. When I think of Manning himself it is as a great well—possessing reserves of energy, intellect and commitment I have never before witnessed.
I have a recurring, Descartes-inspired, dualist fantasy. I imagine how much I could accomplish if I were not hindered by the realities of being embodied. I have so many ideas and intentions. I see so many paths and possibilities. I want to explore so many connections and paths. Think of how much I could accomplish if I were only mind and will unfettered by eyes that grow wearing of reading, hands that become exhausted from typing, a back that aches from sitting at the desk and a body that must eat and rest.
To those of us he mentored, it seemed like Manning had achieved this feat. I wondered if he had somehow bent the rules of the physical world in order to accomplish an unthinkable amount of work in such short periods. He felt like pure energy. But our dearest Manning was in a body. He was in a body that was broken and struggling. It turns out that our beloved mentor was mortal after all. I cannot believe that he is gone. I cannot even believe it is possible that he could be gone.
That we will have his long-anticipated, great and final work even as he leaves us is so classically, tragically appropriate. Manning would never leave us without one more contribution, one more trail blazed, one more bar raised, one more possibility realized, one last drink from the great well of himself.