By Arturo R. García
Professor Manning Marable lived long enough to finish his life’s work. Marable, a prolific author, activist and academic, died this past Friday of complications from pneumonia in New York City, just three days before the release of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a comprehensive revisiting of the life and times of the civil rights leaders he put together over the course of two decades.
Malcolm X himself contributed to many of the fictions, Mr. Marable argues, by exaggerating, glossing over or omitting important incidents in his life. These episodes include a criminal career far more modest than he claimed, an early homosexual relationship with a white businessman, his mother’s confinement in a mental hospital for nearly 25 years and secret meetings with leaders of groups as divergent as the Ku Klux Klan and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” shows, for instance, that at a time when Malcolm X claimed in the autobiography to have “devoted himself to increasingly violent crime” in New York, he was actually in Lansing, Mich., his hometown. Mr. Marable attributes the embroidery of “amateurish attempts at gangsterism” to Malcolm X’s wish to demonstrate that the Nation of Islam’s gospel of pride and self-respect had the power to redeem even the most depraved criminal.
“In many ways, the published book is more Haley’s than its author’s,” Mr. Marable writes, noting that Haley, who died in 1992, was a liberal Republican and staunch integrationist who held “racial separation and religious extremism in contempt” but was “fascinated by the tortured tale of Malcolm’s personal life.”
The book’s completion, it could be said, was an exclamation point on a journey that, for Marable, began linked to another civil rights trail-blazer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whose funeral Marable attended at the urging of his mother.
“With Martin’s death, my childhood abruptly ended,” Marable wrote. “My understanding of political change began a trajectory from reform to radicalism.”
In the academic arena, Marable’s trajectory led him to a Bachelor of Arts degree from Earlham College and a PhD from the University of Maryland. He would go on to be the founder of departments for African-American studies at both Colgate University and Columbia University, where, as Professor Melissa Harris-Perry – herself a noted commentator and activist – noted, he emerged as much more than a purely professional mentor:
“To be a student or a junior faculty member in Manning’s office was to wait for the smile,” she wrote in The Nation. “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.”
Marable is survived by three children, two stepchildren and his wife, Leith Mullings Marable who told The Root she thought he would want to be remembered for having contributed to what she called “the black freedom struggle.”
He would want to be remembered for being both a scholar and an activist and as someone who saw the two as not being separated,” she said. “He believed that both [callings] went together and enhanced each other.”
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is in stores as of today.
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