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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“Manning was obsessed with the mysteries and unresolved questions around the assassination,” Mullings said. “Who gave the order, and who pulled the trigger?”

Which raised a slightly different question: How do you get justice for Malcolm X in the age of Eric Holder?

That same evening, in Kansas City, Missouri, a 54-year-old man named Alvin Sykes placed a three-page typed letter into an envelope. Back on April 5, Sykes had been at a friend’s house when a news report came on CBS about a new book that examined the assassination of Malcolm X. Later, Sykes would recall the announcer making reference to the author’s “last interview” — a poignant phrase. “That got me,” Sykes said.

Now, on May 12, Sykes, who was born to a 14-year-old mother and left school in the ninth grade, sealed the envelope and addressed it to a gentleman in Washington.

All history conceals an a priori superstructure which promotes the interests of certain social classes at the expense of others.
— Manning Marable,
How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America

The spring semester was winding down at Dartmouth, and Russell Rickford ’09GSAS, an assistant professor of history, took a moment between student conferences to talk about his teacher, Manning Marable.

Rickford was getting used to this. One of Marable’s star students, it was Rickford who served as editor of Beyond Boundaries, in addition to writing the eulogy in the program that was to be handed out at a May 26 public memorial for Marable at Columbia.

“Marable came of age politically and intellectually in a moment of great social upheaval,” Rickford said. “His concerns reflect that moment. The black studies movement, the civil rights and black-power movements, the black-arts movement, and anticolonial movements deeply influenced his political consciousness and the kind of questions that he would ask for the rest of his life as a historian, as a political scientist, and as a social critic.

“Many of the eulogies that have come out since his death place him in a lineage that includes W. E. B. Du Bois, who was his great hero, and probably the most important figure in Marable’s own political development. A close second is C. L. R. James, the historian and Marxist theorist, and to a lesser extent, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist. But certainly, Du Bois reflects Marable’s commitment to scholarship in the service of social change and the black liberation movement.

“Marable’s political consciousness and his fundamental political militancy were also informed by Malcolm. He always considered himself a sort of left nationalist — a black nationalist who, as he reflected on the black struggle in the United States and internationally, came to see class as the fundamental social contradiction and the primary source of inequality and racial oppression. As he matured, he became what I call an unhyphenated democratic socialist — a proponent of a deeply democratic, deeply egalitarian, nonsectarian, anti-Stalinist vision of socialism.

“Dr. Marable has an insider-outsider relation to black studies and the black community. I can’t think of anyone with a more encyclopedic knowledge of the black experience. At the same time, he recognized that as a Marxist, he was representative of a minority constituency within the black community. He understood very clearly the ambivalence that the black working class had long felt toward the American Left. One of the main impulses of his scholarship and of his activism was to bridge that gap — not in a way that would impose upon black workers these sort of arcane, derived ideas of Leninism or any other current of Marxism, but that would help to develop class consciousness within American workers of all colors — stimulate an organic Marxism in the heart of corporate capitalism. So he had that sort of duality. You might almost call it a Du Boisian double consciousness.

“Intellectually, Dr. Marable represents a structural critique of our racial democracy in a time when the public discourse is increasingly shaped by ideas of a postracial world — the notion that the civil rights movement solved the basic problems of racial inequality, a narrative that really enabled abandonment of the efforts to acknowledge and correct the institutional racism of the past. So Dr. Marable was writing and pursuing activism at a time when his message, his fundamental understanding of the nature of society, was, in many ways, marginal.”

Though maybe that message was becoming less marginal, somehow, in the age of Obama. At any rate, that week, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention hit number three on the New York Times best-seller list.

Any criticisms, no matter how minor or mild, of Malcolm’s stated beliefs or evolving political career, were generally perceived as being not merely heretical, but almost treasonous to the entire Black race.
— Manning Marable,
Beyond Boundaries

The halal food truck in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard was doing good business on the evening of May 19. It was the 86th birthday of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, and inside the Schomburg, home to Malcolm X’s diaries, the Langston Hughes Auditorium filled up with a crowd that included Muslims, Marxists, nationalists, families, students, and even some admirers of Barack Obama.

The seven panelists took their seats on the stage, and the Schomburg’s director, Howard Dodson, entreated the audience to be respectful. Dodson knew that the evening’s program, billed as a “critical discussion” of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, would not be a picnic for the author. Many in the audience, and certainly on the panel, felt that Marable’s inclusion in the book of speculation into Malcolm’s personal life — a possible for-pay sexual exchange with a wealthy white man during Malcolm’s hustling days (before he was reformed by the Honorable Elijah Mohammad), marital tensions in the Shabazz house — was sensationalistic at best.

Panelist Bill Sales ’66SIPA, ’91GSAS, an author and activist, said the book was “a revisionist tract” that was “compromised by the promotion market” and “speaks to the sensibilities of a white audience,” and that “Manning Marable has transformed Malcolm X into a Social Democrat.” Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq, a.k.a. James 67X, a close aide to Malcolm who had been extensively interviewed for Marable’s book, testified vociferously to Malcolm’s unbending heterosexuality. Poet Amina Baraka recounted that when she heard that Marable had “slandered” Malcolm, “I was in agony. Why would Manning Marable repeat these rumors and speculations?” Amina’s husband, Amiri Baraka, revolutionary activist and former poet laureate of New Jersey, counseled that we must “include Marable’s consciousness” in our reading of the book, and suggested that Marable’s use of the word “sect” to describe the Nation of Islam was a fair indication of his biases.

Here, the problem of Marable’s absence, his inability to respond, was manifest, echoing the broader, more boundless emptiness left by his death. So it goes when a giant vanishes.

Then, during the Q&A period, a middle-aged woman got up and declared that she hadn’t read the book and had no intention of reading the book. Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz were her heroes, she said with piety, and they always would be. She seemed to expect an ovation, but most in the audience saw the problem in her statement, and no one applauded her words.

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