Near the end of his life, W.E.B. Du Bois, father of all black scholars, dedicated himself to fulfilling a long-deferred dream: the completion of an encyclopedia of the transnational black experience. Du Bois envisioned a document that would chronicle the life and history of Africans throughout the Diaspora, a monumental resource for Pan-African consciousness and collective resistance.
Du Bois died in 1963 as the project was getting under way. But the soul of his Encyclopedia Africana continued to inhabit his spiritual descendants. One of the most illustrious of those heirs, scholar-activist Manning Marable, was first afflicted with a Du Boisian passion for the black Diaspora as a bibliophile and aspiring race man growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1950s and ’60s. Upon becoming a precocious black-studies professor in the 1970s, he embarked upon a life of struggle, infecting thousands of emerging scholars and activists with the same chronic condition: an obsession with black history and culture, a longing for black freedom.
I am one of the thousands of intellectual sons and daughters of Marable. He brought me to Columbia University for graduate study from the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California, where I was finishing a biography of Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife. He introduced me to my future wife, Adrienne Clay, in the fall of 2002 when we were both researchers for Marable’s Malcolm X Project. He oversaw my doctoral dissertation on an intellectual history of black power-era liberation schools and molded me into a historian and political theorist.
Like many who studied under Marable at Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, which he founded in 1993, I accepted the task implicit in his life and work: the sharing of knowledge as a way to help liberate those oppressed by class and color. Tomorrow I return to that mission; Marable would accept no less. Today, though, I am lost. My mentor has gone over to the ancestors, and I miss him terribly.
It is appropriate that a remembrance of Marable invoke Du Bois’ vision; Marable was himself something of an encyclopedia Africana. His epic knowledge of the black Diaspora never failed to stun those who heard him lecture, whether at a podium during one of the frequent appearances to which he too readily consented, or during everyday conversations. Marable offered disquisitions on race, culture and politics that expertly illuminated the mechanisms of injustice and left you burning with indignation, glowing with inspiration and ready to take to the streets — or hustle to your computer.
I always threatened, half jokingly, to sneak a tape recorder into one of my freewheeling sessions with Marable during his office hours. Transcribed verbatim, any one of his impromptu elucidations of the black experience might have served as an interdisciplinary thesis worthy of submission to the world’s finest dissertation committees.