I discovered Manning Marable as a 21-year-old freshman at Knoxville College, a historically black college I’d left my native Detroit to attend after working in factories and fathering a son during the time most college-bound kids are in school.
I was in the library stacks, browsing the sociology section, when I came upon a book that grabbed my attention: From the Grassroots: Social and Political Essays Towards Afro-American Liberation. It was clear that Marable’s left politics reflected how he had baptized classic European social theory in the black experience. “Wow,” I said to myself. “If Karl Marx was a brother, this is how he’d write and think.”
The author photo on this intriguing book showed a young man with a handsome face that was crowned by a shock of black hair whose woolly Afro styling conjured a 20th-century Frederick Douglass. As I was to learn later, the comparison to Douglass didn’t end at the ‘fro, since Marable, like his 19th-century predecessor, was an eloquent spokesman for the democratic dreams of despised black people.
As I devoured Marable’s brilliant work — including his quick 1980 follow-up, Blackwater: Historical Studies in Race, Class Consciousness, and Revolution, and his pioneering 1983 work, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America — I knew I was in the presence of a world-class intellectual who lent his learning to the liberation of the vulnerable masses. I was impressed that a man so smart and accomplished could so unashamedly identify with struggling black folk — and I was really impressed that he was so young, only eight years older than I.
Years later, when he invited me to Columbia to teach as a visiting professor in the late ’90s, and I recalled again to Marable my introduction to his work, he flashed that magnetic smile of his and said that he was glad his books could help a brilliant young intellectual find his way. That, of course, was vintage Marable: deflecting attention from his Herculean efforts to parse the meaning of black political destiny by embracing the promise of a younger colleague.
And that wasn’t just something he did with me; Marable nurtured and guided a veritable tribe of graduate students and junior professors as they sought sure footing in the academy. He was generous with his time and insight; he had a real talent for spotting rising stars, and a genius for tutelage and inspiration, with either a bon mot if time was short or a hearty, dynamic, luxurious, sprawling conversation when you were blessed to find his inner circle.