Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A tribute to Manning Marable

The Great Wells of Manning Marable 

Melissa Harris-Perry

April 3, 2011

We have suffered a great loss in the passing of
Professor Manning Marable. As my Nation colleague John
 wrote yesterday [1], the coming weeks will be
filled with tributes to Manning's life and work. He
was, as John says, "one of America's truest public

Manning was an unflinching and breathtakingly prolific
scholar whose commitments to racial, economic, gender,
and international justice were unparalleled. In decades
of weekly columns, hundreds of academic journal
 and a dozen books, Manning has already written
his own legacy. But despite the fact that we all have
"Manning Marable shelves" in our personal libraries,
there are two generations of African-American scholars
who will remember him as much for the mentor he was to
us as for the research legacy he leaves.

It is still a surprisingly lonely endeavor to be an
African-American academic pursuing research on black
life. Despite the outward appearance of successful
careers, many black social scientists, historians and
humanists wage a daily battle for relevance and respect
in our departments and on our campuses. The fight
begins in graduate school and does not seem to abate
even after we have published articles, written books,
achieved tenure or garnered professional praise.

In our loneliness and struggle many of us reach out for
mentors. It is relatively easy to find senior scholars
who will offer encouraging words, well-rehearsed advice
and general praise. But Manning managed to do so much
more than that. To be a student or a junior faculty
member in Manning's office was to wait for the smile.
He would listen intently and seriously as you told him
about the project you envisioned, the finding you made
or a conclusion you'd drawn. As you spoke, his face was
a mask of stillness covering a never-resting intellect
just below the surface. It was more than a little
intimidating to present an idea to Manning. But if he
liked what you were up to or thought you had uncovered
a promising direction then his face would crack into a
broad and compelling smile that made the whole
nerve-wracking experience worth it. If you got the
smile then you knew you could keep going.

This was only the most surface way that Manning
mentored us. As a student of politics and history, he
understood that young race scholars faced steep
structural barriers and entrenched academic practices
that no amount of well-intentioned professional
cheerleading could erase. Instead of just telling us we
could do it, Manning helped make "doing it" possible.

As founding director of Columbia University's Institute
for Research in African-American Studies, Manning
created a place where students could stretch their
intellect in uncoventional ways. He encouraged students
to study black life using methods and asking questions
that typical disciplinary boundaries so often limit and
discourage in our work. His institute was a gathering
place for people from all over the world who insisted
on critical connections between theory and practice.
Through publication of his quarterly journal, Souls: A
Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society
[2], Manning gave many race scholars their first
academic publications. Those early publications were
decisive in the careers of many of the best professors
in the academy today. Through his regular column "Along
the Color Line" Manning gave us permission to and a
model for reaching beyond the walls of the academy. He
reminded us that our work was about something other
than our own profession and that we owed debts to the
communities who were the source material of our
academic writing.

Manning did more than encourage us. He made a way for
us. He cleared brush. He extended his protections. He
shared his resources with uncompromising generosity.
And he did all of this without needing to turn us into
his personal collection. He very rarely took credit for
our successes, despite his important role in all that
we were able to do.

Manning Marable's 2002 book is titled The Great Wells
of American Democracy. It is a biting and critical text
that challenges simplistic heroic narratives of
American history, but simultaneously retains profound
optimism about the inherent possibilities of the
American experiment. When I think of Manning himself it
is as a great well--possessing reserves of energy,
intellect and commitment I have never before witnessed.

I have a recurring, Descartes-inspired, dualist
fantasy. I imagine how much I could accomplish if I
were not hindered by the realities of being embodied. I
have so many ideas and intentions. I see so many paths
and possibilities. I want to explore so many
connections and paths. Think of how much I could
accomplish if I were only mind and will unfettered by
eyes that grow wearing of reading, hands that become
exhausted from typing, a back that aches from sitting
at the desk and a body that must eat and rest.

To those of us he mentored, it seemed like Manning had
achieved this feat. I wondered if he had somehow bent
the rules of the physical world in order to accomplish
an unthinkable amount of work in such short periods. He
felt like pure energy. But our dearest Manning was in a
body. He was in a body that was broken and struggling.
It turns out that our beloved mentor was mortal after
all. I cannot believe that he is gone. I cannot even
believe it is possible that he could be gone.

That we will have his long-anticipated, great and final
work [3] even as he leaves us is so classically,
tragically appropriate. Manning would never leave us
without one more contribution, one more trail blazed,
one more bar raised, one more possibility realized, one
last drink from the great well of himself.

Published on The Nation (http://www.thenation.com)


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