Publication Date

September 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Manning MarableActivist, Public Intellectual, and Biographer of Malcolm X

The historian, public intellectual, and activist Manning Marable died on April 1, 2011 due to complications from a long battle with sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease. He was 60 years old. As a graduate student at Columbia University in the early 1990s I was involved in the search that led to Marable's appointment to the history department and as founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center for the Study of Contemporary Black History at Columbia. I was indeed fortunate to have him join my dissertation committee. Along with his warmth, generosity, and good humor, I benefited enormously from Marable's passion for exploring every facet of black radicalism. From his first book,How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983) to Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, his magnum opus that was published one day after his untimely death, Marable’s work was animated by the conviction that the black radical tradition, in all of its myriad dimensions, including global, Afro-diasporic, and feminist-inflected praxis, had made a singular contribution to democratic thought and practice.

Indeed, before the effort to bring him to Columbia, I had already encountered Marable in his work as a public intellectual and activist during the 1980s. One could not fail to be impressed by this young scholar with extraordinary energy and vision, producing books of immense range, with an urgency fueled by the Reagan administration's backing of right-wing guerrillas in El Salvador and Nicaragua, its policy of constructive engagement with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and its open hostility to civil rights and “big government.” What was truly unique about Marable was his passionate commitment to three inter-related areas of scholarship and activism. While his many deeply researched scholarly books and articles would by any measure constitute an extraordinary achievement, for Marable this wasn't enough. To his record of distinguished scholarship one must add his career-long engagement with the broader public. Marable's nationally syndicated column “Along the Color Line” commenced in 1976 and appeared in over 100 newspapers, evolving with technology into a print and radio public educational and informational service that continued to the present. Finally, his activism was an extension of his deep grounding in black history and radicalism. In the 1980s Marable was active in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and in 1998, co-founded the Black Radical Congress (BRC), an organization of black radicals, nationalists, and feminists that sought to move African American politics to the left.

From his early work onward, socialist critiques of capitalism were a consistent concern. Marable's first book How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America was a counterpart of sorts to Walter Rodney’s classic study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). For Marable, at the juncture of scholarship and activism, small “d”democracy was essential to any program seeking social justice; in his scholarship as well as activism, Marable elaborated valuable critiques of vanguard-politics. Just as importantly, Marable believed that the insights and lessons of the black radical tradition were indispensable tools for activists and the left movements in their quest for genuine democratic transformation. And as U.S. black nationalism and Afrocentricity became synonymous with assertions of patriarchy, Marable insisted that black feminism was a precondition of a viable African American politics. Through his longtime advocacy of an activist black studies intellectual project, Marable constantly sought to bridge racial and ideological divides, as well as those between academic and nonacademic audiences, and between older and younger generations. Indeed, as teacher, adviser, mentor, and editor ofSouls, the journal based at Columbia University, Marable inspired and nurtured the careers of many young scholars and activists. Before coming to Columbia University, Marable held several academic appointments and administrative positions. He was the director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University. He also directed the Africana and Latin American Studies program at Colgate University, and also chaired the Department of Black Studies at Ohio State University. Marable also taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Marable was the author and editor of many books, some of the most influential of which include, apart from How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945–1982 (1984), African and Caribbean Politics: From Kwame Nkrumah to Maurice Bishop (1987), The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life (2002), and Beyond Black and White: Transforming African American Politics (1996). He also co-edited books with his wife and collaborator, the anthropologist Leith Mullings, currently a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York, president of the American Anthropological Association, and also a co-founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a work of some 20 years in the making, was a distillation of his guiding intellectual and political concerns: to a pan-African method and perspective rooted in a commitment to black liberation; to the study of history as a lesson and resource for continuing struggles for justice; and to the debunking of myths and illusions in the pursuit of scholarly truth and rigorous contextualization and analysis. Through his careful documentation and analysis of the investigation by the NYPD and the FBI of Malcolm’s assassination, Marable has, for instance, uncovered crucial information that may yet lead to a reopening of the case. But Marable’s biography of Malcolm X is not the hagiography that members of Malcolm’s family and many scholars and activists seem to have wanted. Rather, it is a deeply researched, critical study of an extraordinary, though flawed, historical figure. Knowing that many still worship Malcolm as a secular saint, Marable was fearless in the debunking of myths about his subject, including those pertaining to his personal life. While this aspect of the book has generated intense debate and controversy, in time the biography’s scrutiny of aspects of Malcolm’s private life may come to be viewed as its most revolutionary characteristic. In challenging readers to engage in a much-needed interrogation of the politics of gender and sexuality within African American and American everyday life and politics, and in his unflinching examinations of the full complexities of Malcolm, Marable has done an enormous service to historians. Indeed, Marable’s Malcolm X stands as an elegant culmination of a life and career committed to the rigorous pursuit of truth and social justice.

University of Michigan

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