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
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

Substantial elements of the Black elite do not discuss the unique problems of the “underclass,” either with whites or among themselves, because in doing so they would be forced to confront the common realities of racism that underlie the totality of America’s social and economic order.
— Manning Marable,
How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America

At one o’clock on Cinco de Mayo 2011, the day commemorating the defeat in 1862 of the French army in the Battle of Puebla in Mexico, a different sort of military triumph was being honored in Lower Manhattan. The streets around the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) on Hudson Street were barricaded, and people lined the sidewalks to watch the passing motorcade of President Barack Obama. The nation’s first black chief executive was on his way to Ground Zero to meet with 9/11 families in the wake of the U.S. military’s targeted killing of Osama bin Laden. As the procession of armored cars crossed North Moore Street, the mostly nonblack spectators cheered.

Meanwhile, inside the offices of the LDF, Kristen Clarke was working on a legal challenge to a proposed redistricting plan in Louisiana. The LDF had determined that the plan was intended to diminish black voting strength in the northwest part of the state, and Clarke was drafting a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice. But she was glad to take a moment in her office to remember her friend and mentor.

“I was in law school,” Clarke recalled, “but I was quickly drawn to IRAAS” — the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, which Marable founded in 1993 — “and was thrilled to learn that Dr. Marable was at the helm. Though I attended law classes, I spent most of my time at IRAAS, which I found to be a place that really fostered critical thinking.” There, in Schermerhorn Extension, Clarke taught an introductory African American studies course, was a senior editor for Souls, the quarterly journal of black politics and culture that Marable established in 1999, organized conferences and symposia, and later coedited, with Marable, a reader on the racial implications of the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

“Dr. Marable was one of the finest examples of the scholar-activist,” Clarke said. “In 2000, for example, we convened a conference of hundreds of scholars from across the country on the prison-industrial complex, which looked at unfair sentencing, over-incarceration, and police brutality. People came away feeling empowered and motivated to work toward solutions. Under Dr. Marable’s leadership, IRAAS quickly became one of the finest think tanks of scholarship for African American studies.” Clarke would know, having majored in African American studies at Harvard in the 1990s under Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West. “Also, female African American scholars were very well represented at IRAAS, as they were in almost everything Dr. Marable did. It was always important to him that women had leadership roles, and it’s unsurprising to me that when he stepped down as director of IRAAS in 2003, he passed the baton to a woman, Farah Jasmine Griffin.”

Clarke then turned to Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. As a lawyer who once worked at Justice, Clarke had spoken with Marable about his concerns over the assassination. “It’s noteworthy that Dr. Marable got access to the Manhattan District Attorney files and other records that previous scholars had not had the opportunity to examine,” Clarke said, “which is why I think in this book we get a deeper and more complex portrait of Malcolm X than we’ve ever had.”

Those files contained data that reinforced Marable’s doubts.

“True to his scholar-activist principles, Dr. Marable very much wanted the biography of Malcolm X to be used as a vehicle to reopen what he viewed as a cold case,” said Clarke. “He came to believe that the individual who fired the kill shot — the initial shotgun blast that extinguished the life of Malcolm X — is still alive and has never been brought to justice.”

A week after Barack Obama’s visit to Lower Manhattan, one of the president’s most forceful critics stood before several hundred people at the CUNY Graduate Center to discuss Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. It was the eve of what would have been Manning Marable’s 61st birthday, and the speaker, the Princeton philosopher Cornel West — dressed as usual in a black three-piece suit, white shirt, and silver pocket watch and chain — dug into his homily with a heavy heart.

“Manning Marable was my brother,” West said devoutly. “And I loved my brother Manning. Dearly.”

West recalled meeting Marable 31 years before, to get the older scholar’s signature on his copy of From the Grassroots, one of Marable’s earliest works.

“As soon as I saw him, all I could do was give him a hug,” West told the crowd in his funky, ecumenical style. “He embraced me. He gave me confidence. He gave me en-cour-age-ment. I felt enabled and ennobled in his presence.” West, jazzman of ideas, syncopated his syllables, drew out sounds like a Selmer saxophone baptized in the river Jordan. “He had dedicated his life, and he did, he was faithful unto death in keeping alive the legacy of Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Sinclair Drake, E. Franklin Frazier, and yes, Marx, and Weber on a left-wing day — all of the great scholars who provided an analysis of the dynamics of power and structures and institutions but always connected the agency of those Sly Stone called Everyday People. To look at the world through the lens of those Frantz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’ — that is, was, forever will be, the life and the legacy of my brother and your brother, Manning Marable.”

For West, who read the book twice, the biography raised a central question: “How do you talk about Malcolm X in the age of Obama?” He then contrasted the two leaders in relation to the poor, to the establishment, and to power itself, in ways unflattering to the president. “In the age of Obama,” said West, “the last thing you want to be is an angry black man.”

That got some knowing laughs. West was just warming up.

“The condition of truth,” he said, “is to allow suffering to speak — that’s Manning Marable on Malcolm X. Which means a lot of folks who claimed to be in love with Malcolm will be unsettled by Manning’s text. That’s good. That’s called education.” Applause for that one. “Cut against the grain! Shatter the myths! Malcolm was a human being. Not pure and pristine, but a cracked vessel like all of us, who at the same time had a level of courage and vision and determination that was so rare, especially coming from the chocolate side of town, and especially among the subproletariat — the black poor — the black working poor. We’re not talkin’ about bourgeois Negroes like Martin Luther King Jr. right now.”

Martin was a great brother, West said, but “he decided to be in solidarity with the black poor against the dominant tendencies of the black bourgeoisie,” whereas Malcolm “was already there.” For evidence, West quoted Marable chapter and verse, and, hitting the blue notes, alluded to what for him were the “saddest lines in the whole text,” on page 268: The central irony of Malcolm’s career was that his critical powers of observation, so important in fashioning his dynamic public addresses, virtually disappeared in his mundane evaluations of those in his day-to-day personal circle. Especially in the final years of his life, nearly every individual he trusted would betray that trust.

West let the horror of that sink in. The betrayals, of course, had an ultimate consequence, and while West didn’t get into Marable’s suspicions about the murder, the speaker who preceded him that night did: Marable’s partner, Leith Mullings, the CUNY anthropologist who in the early 1990s had tried to bring Marable, whom she did not yet know personally, to CUNY — and who was still miffed, as she sometimes quipped, that he chose Columbia — had told the overflow crowd what many of Marable’s associates were telling the media.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (93)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time