Manning Marable’s Students Remember Him

They were a "veritable tribe" taught and guided by the Columbia University scholar of African-American life. Here are their tributes.


In his moving tribute to Manning Marable, black-studies scholar Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, writes, “Marable nurtured and guided a veritable tribe of graduate students and junior professors as they sought sure footing in the academy.” Here are the recollections of some members of that “veritable tribe,” many of whom studied with him at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies.

Robyn C. Spencer, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College in New York City, was Marable’s first graduate student.

The first time I saw Manning Marable was at his job talk at Columbia University in 1993. He delivered his audition lecture about the legacy of black radicalism embodied by Malcolm X with an unapologetic reverence that mainstream historians usually reserved for heads of state. In one fell swoop, he moved me and my coterie of graduate students –studying everything from poor black women mobilizing for welfare rights to Puerto Ricans in the Young Lords Party to black radical organizers in the Black Panther Party — from the margin of American history to its center.

After he was hired, I couldn’t wait to meet him and ask him to be my adviser. At our first meeting, he shared his vision for creating a space for research that validated the totality of the black past, including the radicals, progressives and feminists. He wanted to go beyond the ivory tower and interject into national debates about black life, shape public policy and, most of all, connect to grassroots political activism, especially in surrounding Harlem.

As I moved through the program, going from teaching assistant to doctoral candidate to assistant professor under Marable’s guidance, I watched him nurture the IRAAS from the humble construction site where we held our first conversation to a leading scholarly institute — all while employing unfunded graduate students in meaningful work and providing an institutional space for conversations about black life inside and outside the academy. I’d like to think that they were both labors of love.

Monique W. Morris is the CEO of MWM Consulting Group and the former vice president for advocacy and research at the NAACP. She is the author of Too Beautiful for Words and more than 35 research publications on social-justice issues.

Scholarship and advocacy are inextricably linked. That’s what I learned most from my mentor and friend, Dr. Manning Marable. As the first staff person hired to work with him at IRAAS, I read everything he wrote and was responsible for maintaining a clipping file for his syndicated newspaper column, “Along the Color Line.” That experience taught me that scholarship was an important weapon in the battle for human rights, which is a lesson that I have carried with me in my work for social justice.

Marable’s mentorship was everything from quiet to challenging, but his critique was always rigorous. As a historian, he offered guidance through a spirit of sankofa. History’s lessons were necessary to explore and confront if we were to move forward with a progressive black agenda.

As a democratic socialist, he challenged structural racism and the oppression of black people. Always, he was forward thinking and offered his students an opportunity to develop our own insights. A few months ago, he wrote to me that we needed a “new vision for black freedom.” As we straddle life “along the color line,” the time is now to advance that movement.