In my twelve years of primary and secondary education, i only missed one day. That’s not a joke. One day. And it wasn’t due to illness or hooky or any other excusable absence. It was because i wanted to meet Dr. Manning Marable.
i had attended Columbia University’s admitted students weekend and decided to stay that Monday to catch his class and potentially discuss some of his books (which, at that point, i had only browsed). No such luck. His TA was teaching that day.
“Who does this dude think he is? So big he can’t even teach his own classes?”
When i finally did meet him that following fall, i was a little stand-offish. After all, this dude was already feelin himself hard enough for the both of us. But my preconceptions melted away when, out of nowhere, i hear a voice say “hello there. i’m Dr. Marable,” hand extended with a genuinely warm smile. Over the next four years, i would learn just how wrong i was.
Perhaps i grasped his hand a little too tightly, but i finally got the chance to have that conversation. In fact, over the course of my time at Columbia, as student and employee of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS–which he founded), i had many conversations with Dr. Marable. Anytime his door was open, i’d stop by to say “hi,” which would inevitably lead to him schooling me about Malcolm, Michael Manley, the Sandinistas, the Panthers, whatever. We didn’t always agree, but he always pushed me to articulate my ideas, especially if others didn’t agree.
i didn’t take a class with him, however, until my senior year. i was majoring in African-American studies and was only now taking the intro class. But even with my extensive reading on the subject, Dr. Marable’s class opened new doors and put me on to things i’d never heard of before. i was particularly grateful that the class did not stop at the 1970’s, as many classes and history books do. Instead, he brought us through the deindustrialization of the 70s, the crack epidemic of the 80s, and the prison industrial complex of the 90s.
What struck me most about him was how comfortable it was to be around him. He was like somebody’s grandfather who just knew a LOT about Black history, politics, political economy, and just about anything else. He’d open his class with photos from Freedom: a Photographic Struggle of the African-American Struggle (which he co-authored with his wife, Dr. Leith Mullings), and, somehow, he always injected himself into some aspect of the photo.
Chicago Panthers office shot up by the pigs: “My wife was at this office just a week before this picture was taken and commented that the stairwell was too narrow. If something were to happen, no one would be able to get out.”
Danny Glover at the World Conference Against Racism: “You see that megaphone he’s speaking into? i’m holding it.”
He was an expert at making the scholarship relevant and relatable. And he, along with the faculty, staff, and students of IRAAS, encouraged me to pursue it. Dr. Marable gladly wrote recommendation letters that got me into graduate school.
Yesterday, a close friend surprised me with a copy of his latest and last book: Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention. The book took over a decade to complete and was released on the day of his death, April 1, 2011. At nearly 600 pages, i can only smile knowing that i’m in for one last lesson from Dr. Manning Marable, my professor.