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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of Manning, Mentors, and Radical Public Intellectuals

Johanna Fernández is assistant professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York and Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Jordan University in Amman, Jordan 

I first encountered Manning Marable in college, where exposure to two of his most important works changed my life. At a moment when the Reagan Revolution was deploying base racist stereotypes to justify the dismantling of the liberal welfare state and the civil rights gains of the 1960s, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America offered a Marxist analysis of the urban crisis that blamed capitalism’s unbridled advance in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 1973 for the mass deterioration of working class black life in the post-civil rights movement era. Written in 1983, this classic book also warned of the ballooning incarceration of a redundant labor force that was increasingly young, black, and rebellious. If How Capitalism helped me make sense of the painful and confusing experience of growing up in urban America at the height of the crack epidemic, Marable’s epic run-through of the brave struggles of the civil rights and black power movements, Race, Reform, and Rebellion, inspired me to fight. While other college texts seemed to obfuscate reality, Marable’s books were grounded in history, they exposed inequality, sided with the black radical tradition, and argued that justice for the majority of working class people of all races could be achieved only through struggle and the fundamental transformation of society. Here was an academic who actually believed in the possibility of a socialist society. While there was much I didn’t understand, Marable’s arguments made sense viscerally; and they awakened in me the peculiar idea that perhaps the study of history might be of use in the pursuit of justice.

So it was, that the day after graduation in Spring 1993, I embarked on a cross-country journey and made the University of Colorado (Boulder) a major stop on my way to California, because I had heard that Manning Marable was teaching there. I was certain that, once there, I would be able to take a meeting with the professor whose books had so defined the trajectory of my post-graduation plans. But, upon arrival, I was informed by the Department secretary that he had left his post at the University.

A year later, I enrolled in the History Ph.D. program at Columbia, without funding, and did a double take when Professor Elizabeth Blackmar advised that if I needed a lifejacket I should “go see Manning, at the Institute.” Far from Boulder, I finally took my meeting with Professor Marable, who insisted that I call him Manning, and offered me a position as his primary research assistant, which paid my tuition during my 7 years in-residence at Columbia. Manning’s relaxed and humorous, midwestern manner was disarming, and it set the tone of interactions at the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS). Under his tutelage, IRAAS became a refuge for a coterie of unfunded doctoral students, disproportionately black and working class, who were outsiders in the academy. Because the history, struggles, sorrows, and aspirations of black people were imprinted in Manning’s DNA he understood the long-term importance of claiming a space in the academy for young scholars interested in the study of black history. At Columbia, during the difficult moments in our doctoral journeys he stood up and fought for each of us individually; and because he was a materialist he built permanent institutions at the University designed to support us financially.

Manning must also be recognized for his advocacy and work in integrating the faculty at Columbia. With, literally, only a couple of black tenured faculty when he arrived in 1993, Columbia appeared to be unreconstructed. By the time he stepped down as Director of the Institute, only ten years later, the number of tenured black professors at Columbia had increased exponentially. Manning was also instrumental in the hiring of Latino and Asian faculty and in the struggle launched by student activists to establish an Ethnic Studies program.

Manning founded the IRAAS at the start of a decade that consolidated the power and political agenda of those who sought to eradicate, once and for all, the gains of the Sixties, an ongoing development, which Manning had earlier described as America’s “conservative restoration.” The Republican Party’s historic and overwhelming victory in the congressional elections of 1994 brought with it a Tsunami of regressive and racist legislation (Welfare Reform, the Crime Bill, the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, the Defense of Marriage Act, the various court rulings against abortion and Affirmative Action, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, among others) that devastated the lives of millions. At a moment when politicians launched an ideological assault against the weakest people in American society, Manning was one of a small handful of academics, disproportionately black, who determined to contribute historical and social scientific explanations of these obstinate events to a public debate that seemed to have abandoned modern principles of social analysis and reason. I was fortunate to have spoken alongside of him at dozens of public events during those years, and I marveled at how he managed to write his weekly syndicated column (of which he was so proud because it was widely ready by ordinary black folk), meet his academic commitments, and accept hundreds of speaking engagements across the country at union halls, community centers, and college campuses.

Manning taught me to be politically brave, to commit myself to understanding the world in all its complexities, and to challenge the tendency within academia to allow the pursuit of specialization to become an obstacle to broad, interdisciplinary and political debate and discussion of social phenomena.

I have so much for which to be thankful to Manning. He was my mentor and my father in the academy, and without him, I would never have survived the Ph.D. program at Columbia. I am grateful for the skinny he dished on so many of his contemporaries, it humanized him and them, and normalized the academy for so many of us. I am grateful for the opportunity he provided me to travel to Cuba with a delegation of black scholars to investigate issues of race and gender in the island nation; and for the opportunity to participate at the first, intimate organizing meeting in Chicago of the Black Radical Congress (BRC). I am grateful to Manning for being the only academic who organized a conference on the most important death penalty case of our time, which he entitled unapologetically, “In Defense of Mumia.”

I am deeply thankful for his love and unconditional support and for the lives he transformed, including my own, through his example as an unrelenting black public intellectual.

Manning's heart was in the work of understanding the world and contributing to its transformation. This is the work and the tradition that we must carry forth. And lest we  lose hope in the possibility of social and human transformation…Manning has left us with his brilliant and honest ode to Malcolm X.

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