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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Reflections on a radical: Manning Marable, 1950-2011

It has taken almost a full week to truly digest the passing of Manning Marable. To simply refer to him as an “eminent scholar” begins to peel back his impact on our cultural aesthetic, but just barely.

Dr. Manning Marable
As a professor – with posts at Cornell, Fisk, Colgate, Ohio State, University of Colorado and finally at Columbia University – for the past four decades, the minds he opened, shaped and challenged are too numerous to even dare list. Likewise, his academic and popular writings – op-eds that ran in collegiate and mainstream publications alike, some 20 books authored or edited and more – reached an even vaster network.

He kept a penetrating focus on the ever-evolving challenge of navigating American, indeed even global, society as African Americans, with all the social and economic baggage that exploration unpacks. The quest for democracy, need for agitation, wane of advocacy, desire for liberation, consequences of sensory-muted existences – these themes resonated throughout his scholarship. It could be argued that he sought to stir up equal discomfort among his white and African-American colleagues alike, but it cannot be denied that he kept his eye trained toward a progressive future while probing a reverberating past.

It seems beyond tragic that he died literally on the cusp of perhaps his greatest triumph, the publication of his seminal treatise on the myth, mystery and utter humanity of Malcolm X. Fascinated by his mystique, Marable tunneled past the pop-and-puff culture profile of T-shirt, neo-revolutionary and film and excavated unexamined attributes and anecdotes of the former Malcolm Little turned X turned El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
The dictionary-weight tome will ignite a new firestorm as it slays iconographic visions and casts new suspicions and revelations, backed by private papers, interviews as well as previously sequestered documents sprung by Freedom of Information requests.

Marable’s scholarship never has failed to elicit strong responses – and this opus may permanently engrain him in both the ivory tower and the street corner. Released Monday, discussion and debate on the book  is just beginning – especially his tabloid-ready contention that Malcolm X had bisexual relationships – and expected to remain heated, even in a society of 140-character attention spans.

In that his views often departed from tradition, he certainly earned the brand “radical.”In that he spent the bulk of his life researching the details to add heft to his urgent calls for equality, he also could be considered a romantic, a man infatuated with insistent understanding of the need for and costs of parity as it relates to America’s vexing racial relations. They are considerations that are fading from the landscape.

Diversity in thought as it related to strategies that advance black people long had been discouraged, when victory once was deemed possible only through intractable, monolithic cohesion. Breaking from the ranks historically led to disastrous results for the corporate body, even if it enriched an individual – going back to slavery and whistleblowers that tipped off escapes or uprisings. From that heritage, and a deep-seated desire to finally attain the equal standing of unfettered citizenship in these United States, came the left-leanings that jumped the jitters of those in power.

Marable personified that crusade.

Yet, in an era where another, perhaps equally quixotic, pursuit of post-racial relations permeates, impassioned pleas to investigate to eradicate, rather than mitigate, are dismissed as retro, if not out of step. The modern scramble rightward has led to another sort of ideological, often class-based imbalance.

Marable’s death ultimately foists a broader truth, that public intellectualism is in dire need of an infusion if the Africana imprint is to be kept honest, and ultimately, influential, in this post-modern American age.