Manning Marable's Living Legacy

An explosive new biography of Malcolm X is only a sliver of the late Manning Marable’s legacy. And it might help change history.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2011
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The collective experience of pain and hardship, suffering and sacrifice, has given African Americans a unique perspective from which our consciousness has been forged.
— Manning Marable,
Living Black History

Illustrations by David HollenbachOn the morning of April 9, 1968, a 17-year-old high-school senior from Dayton, Ohio, got off a city bus in downtown Atlanta and walked up Auburn Avenue to the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Above the church’s protruding blue sign, a solitary wreath hung on the red bricks. It was 6:30 a.m., and the young man, whose mother had sent him to cover the funeral for Dayton’s black newspaper, was the only person around.

In hindsight, it seems logical, even inevitable, that the precocious teenager who was first on the scene that day should become, by the time he was in his early 30s, one of the world’s most perceptive and influential scholars of the black experience. What sense of history, then, must have flooded Manning Marable’s consciousness in the gray Atlanta dawn? What possession of time and space as he stood alone on a desolate street where, in just a few hours, 150,000 mourners — students and senators, pacifists and militants, athletes and entertainers, capitalists and socialists, diplomats and governors and ordinary citizens of different colors and faiths — would gather for the largest public funeral in U.S. history? What grief, what visions, as he walked among the linked-arm multitude behind the mule-drawn wagon that carried the coffin of Martin Luther King Jr.?

The following winter, in his first year at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, Marable had another brush with history. This time it was in the pages of a book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

“The full relevance and revolutionary meaning of the man suddenly became crystal clear to me,” Marable later wrote of his conversion. “In short, the ‘King Man’ became almost overnight a confirmed, dedicated ‘X-Man.’” For Marable, Malcolm X was the “embodiment of black masculinist authority and power, of uncompromising bravery in the face of racial oppression,” a prophet who “spoke the uncomfortable truths that no one else had the courage or integrity to broach.”

What Marable could not have known in 1969 was just how all-encompassing his obsession with Malcolm X would become.

From the beginning of my academic life I viewed being a historian of the black experience as becoming the bearer of truths or stories that had been suppressed or relegated to the margins.
— Manning Marable,
Beyond Boundaries

The author looked like a million bucks.

Trim, silver-haired, and neatly dressed, Manning Marable, the M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies and professor of history and public affairs at Columbia, arrived at Faculty House to celebrate the publication of Beyond Boundaries: The Manning Marable Reader, a collection of essays spanning Marable’s 35 years as a self-described “public historian and radical intellectual.” It was March 3, 2011, and Marable was in a period of unimaginable demands. In a few weeks he was scheduled to travel the country to promote a 500-page, much-anticipated work that he had completed with the help of an oxygen tank. The previous summer, he had undergone a double-lung transplant, the result of a lupus-like condition called sarcoidosis that had afflicted him for 25 years. (“He kept trying to pull himself out of sedation,” Marable’s wife and intellectual partner, the anthropologist Leith Mullings, later said. “He was determined to finish the book.”) Now, back on his feet, Marable stood at a lectern in the Presidential Room and reflected on his career.

“The foremost question that preoccupies my work is the nexus between history and black consciousness,” Marable said. “What is the meaning of black group identity as interpreted through the stories and experiences of African American people over time?”

As he spoke, Marable must have also been thinking of that other book, in which he explored this crucial question more profoundly than he ever had before. Kristen Clarke ’00LAW, Marable’s coeditor on a recent collection of essays titled Barack Obama and African American Empowerment, noticed Marable’s preoccupation at an event for their book held in February, at the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem. Later, Clarke would recall how excited Marable had been that night about the coming publication of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the monumental biography whose decade-long gestation had created a good deal of suspense: How would the inquisitive, methodical, leave-no-stone-unturned Marable approach the larger-than-life icon whom Marable himself called “the most remarkable figure produced by 20th-century black America?”

As the April 4 publication date approached, with all its unsubtle historic significance, Viking Books was buzzing with requests for advance copies and author interviews. This wasn’t surprising. Few figures in American history are as intensely loved, hated, and misinterpreted as Malcolm X, and Marable, never shy in his public engagement, yearned for the discussion that his powerfully written book was bound to set off. The pages contained an illuminating history of black nationalism in America (including the Garveyism to which Malcolm Little was exposed as a child through his preacher father, Earl); details of Malcolm’s extensive travels in Africa in 1964; insights into his psychic complexities, divided loyalties, and political and religious evolution; his split from the Nation of Islam and his increasing profile on the global Islamic stage; and glimpses of the minister’s private life, if privacy could be said to exist for a man who, as Marable demonstrates to dramatic effect, was for years relentlessly spied on by the FBI and the NYPD.

But what really captured Marable, and fired his activist blood, was the mystery surrounding the events of February 21, 1965, when Malcolm X was gunned down at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. Three men, all members of the Nation of Islam, were arrested and convicted of the murder.

To Marable, however, something was wrong with the picture.

A week after his appearance at Faculty House this spring, Marable was hospitalized with pneumonia. His classes were canceled. On March 31, as bookstores were unpacking their cartons of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention for their window displays, Marable went into cardiac arrest. Those who read the New York Times on April 2 would have seen a photo of Marable on the front page, with the stunning headline: On Eve of a Revealing Work, Malcolm X Biographer Dies.

Manning Marable was 60 years old. Three days later, the biography was released.

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