I first met Manning Marable in a moment of desperation. It was my first year at Columbia—his, too—and I had no money. Word was he had some additional funding for graduate students. It wasn’t a long meeting, but I left the office that day with a new job and a new mentor. Without it—without him—I never would have made it.
As it turns out, Manning’s act of generosity would change my life—not just because it helped me pay for graduate school but, more crucially, because it provided me with the kind of home I needed as I struggled to figure out how to live, think and act in this world. Manning’s treatment of others—embodied in the sweet invitation to “just call me Manning”—is still the model by which I treat my own students. At the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, his “baby” at Columbia, we became part of a vibrant community of scholar-activists who took Marx’s challenge—to transform rather than merely understand and interpret the world—very seriously. But like Du Bois before him, Manning’s vision also drew deeply, even primarily, from the intellectual and political wellsprings of the black radical tradition. His Institute was a black space and a multicultural one, at once democratic and radical, scholarly and activist, critical and welcoming, privileged and public—and these were never contradictions. In this setting, with this charge, Manning taught us the most profound lesson of all: that it was as important to be in Harlem as it was to be at Columbia. In fact, from the Institute’s windows, which deliberately faced uptown, he would frequently look out to Harlem, with a longing smile, a felt sense of responsibility to what he often referred to as “the world’s most famous black neighborhood.
Manning meant for his students to bridge the gap between the seminar room and the street, between theory and practice, between big ideas and the brutal realities of our present world. But he also saw beauty in the world beyond the academy, in the people whose lives and struggles and dreams he understood in his bones, and in the history and politics he sought to chronicle throughout his distinguished and tenacious career. Echoing Du Bois, he insisted that all of us were “co-workers in the kingdom of culture.” In Manning’s presence, you felt like this was the highest calling of all.
At the Institute, folks called me “Manning’s white-hand man,” and I was never more proud of a nickname. (You see, for some time, I was the only white person working in the office, and frankly, I have never felt more at home in my professional life.) Without exception, Manning took all of us very seriously; we worked with him, not just for him. He was uncommonly dedicated to our intellectual, political, and moral development. During my five years there, he trusted me to edit his journal (Race & Reason, now Souls). He picked me to be one of his teaching assistants for his introductory course in African-American studies. He introduced us to leading black intellectuals and activists like Cornel West, Lani Guinier, Geoffrey Canada, bell hooks, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee—these were just a few of the giants who walked the Institute’s halls.
I still remember the day he invited me to join him for lunch at Columbia’s Faculty Club with Angela Davis, Herbert Aptheker and Eric Foner—probably the most radical gathering that dining room had ever seen! He helped to advise my dissertation and blurbed my first book. He challenged us to be our best as young scholars and teachers, and he had our back as we endeavored to speak truth to power. Perhaps most importantly, he also picked us up and brushed us off whenever we were broken or had lost our bearings. He was the first person to hug me and call me “Dr. McCarthy” when I finally earned my PhD in history. He was proud of his students, and we could feel it. In many ways, we were a family, and Manning was like a father to us. He always will be.
When the news of Manning’s passing came last Friday, I was devastated. I wish I had found the time to visit him in New York City when he was sick. I wish he had hung in there long enough to see the publication of his long-awaited masterpiece, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I wish I had told him, simply, “I love you.”
But something funny happened in the midst of all those tearful regrets: the phone calls, e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages from his former and current students. For some of us, it had been months or even years since we last spoke; others were meeting each other for the very first time. Regardless, our exchanges and reminiscences made it clear that we all knew each other very well. After all, we were Manning’s minions. I like to think of us as his children, now nearly grown, coming home to pay our final respects to our beloved mentor, the towering freedom fighter who raised us up and set us out into the world to transform it. We will have to do it without him now, but do it we must. And we will do it together, as Manning would have wanted. May we be as strong to the challenge as he was.