Thursday, April 7, 2011

Farewell Manning Marable, (May 13, 1950 – April 1, 2011): A great scholar, a great man

With a heavy heart, I read of the death of Manning Marable at the beginning of the month. Marable was one of America's foremost scholars of African American Studies. He taught at Columbia University and he wrote far too many books to list here. His last book, apparently his magnum opus, was a biography of Malcolm X called Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

I confess to not having read the book yet, but I have ordered it and eagerly await its arrival. In the future, I'll blog about it here. Malcolm X's famous Autobiography, co-written with Roots author Alex Haley, helped cement Malcolm's important place in American mythology. For the sake of full disclosure, few books have had as great an impact on me as Malcolm's Autobiography. An authentic First Edition, complete with the original dust jacket, occupies a very special place on my office bookshelf.

Marable, who had tremendous respect for Malcolm (this isn't the first book he's written about man), shatters a lot of the myths created by the Autobiography. Among the new revelations from Marable are that Malcolm exaggerated his criminal record in the Autobiography and, in his early life, had a gay relationship with a white businessman. There is a fantastic review of Marable's book in The Guardian. Very long, very nuanced and very positive.

A key graf:
Manning Marable, an academic and respected authority on black America, doesn't use his book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention to destroy the reputation of the man who told the heartlands that the assassination of President Kennedy represented "chickens coming home to roost". But, over 487 pages, Marable does effectively destroy the cultivated brand. There is a wealth of detail, some of it new, some of it old stories confirmed, all aided by documents and new recollections from the US government, the FBI and the Nation of Islam, whose leader Louis Farrakhan gave the author an unprecedented nine-hour interview. At the end of it all, Malcolm X remains Malcolm X, for good or ill, one of the most fascinating historical figures of the 20th century. But it is difficult to see him in the same way again.
The book took twelve years to write. Marable, it turns out, had sarcoidosis (a disease involving swelling of lymph nodes, lungs, eyes, skin or other tissues - in Marable's case, he'd hat in his lungs for about a quarter of a century), which necessitated a lung transplant. Thus, the scholar was racing against the clock to finish the biography before he ultimately died of causes related to pneumonia on April 1.

A wonderful biographical sketch of Marable appeared in an African American newspaper, The Florida Courier, at the time of his death. Here's an excerpt:

Black newspaper roots

Born in Dayton, Ohio, on May 13, 1950, Marable wrote in his book, "Speaking Truth to Power," that as the child of middle-class Black Americans – his father a teacher and businessman, his mother an educator and college professor – He watched the largely Southern civil rights movement from afar.

He found his political voice as a teenager writing columns for a Black newspaper, the Dayton Defender. He served as the Defender’s correspondent and marched along with thousands of others during Dr. King’s funeral procession.

"With Martin’s death, my childhood abruptly ended," he wrote. "My understanding of political change began a trajectory from reform to radicalism."

Marable earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Earlham College and his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. He taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Ohio State University, then served as the founding director of the Africana and Hispanic Studies Program at Colgate University before going to Columbia.

Prolific author

Marable wrote hundreds of papers and nearly 20 books, including "How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America" (1983); "Beyond Black and White: Race in America’s Past, Present and Future" (1995); "The Crisis of Color and Democracy" (1995); "The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life" (2003); "Freedom: A Photographic History of the African-American Freedom Struggle" (2002); and "9/11: Racism in a Time of Terror (2002).

A public memorial service is set for May 27. Besides Leith Mullings, his wife of 15 years, three children and two stepchildren survive him.

Incidentally, I have my own Marable story. Years ago, long before I was a professor of history - hell, before I was even in graduate school - I met Marable. At the time, he was guest lecturing in Utah. And I had the great fortune of going to dinner with him. This was back in the 1980s.

He was a wonderful man and, even though I was only a teenager at the time, he treated me very respectfully and listened as well as talked. Sadly, I never met him in person again after that, although I read a few of his books and followed his career with great interest. When he passed away, a wave of sadness hit me at the thought that America has lost one of its great scholars of African American history and life.

It had also lost a great humanitarian and a truly decent man.

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