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.
Marable thus belongs to a breed that, if not necessarily dying, is fading fast. He was on the young end of a generation of brothers and sisters who emerged from the 1960s infused with the original, activist concept of Afro-American studies as an enterprise practiced not by bourgeois careerists but by warrior-intellectuals dedicated to liberating the Diaspora. Marable was always wreathed by the ghosts of black protest past; you never knew exactly when Ida B. Wells, C.L.R. James or Du Bois himself would again enlist him as their interlocutor. He elegantly channeled their democratic visions of social change, placing you in that glorious lineage and letting you revel in its embrace.
For young intellectuals like myself, forged in the neo-black nationalist crucible of 1990s hip-hop and nudged toward democratic socialism by the global devastation of Reaganite neoliberalism, Marable represented the consummate public intellectual, the ultimate engaged scholar. He refused to dwell easily within the "ebony tower," striving instead to mingle his interpretive energies with the vernacular wisdom of the people, whether that mission took him to down-home country churches, shabby community centers or bleak, maximum-security prisons.
For all his travels and accolades, Marable seemed most delighted by the warm applause and sprawling questions (all of them variations on "How we gonna get free?") that he received in such settings. To these and other spaces Marable brought his progressive convictions. His feminism, class analysis and commitment to workers and the poor were elements as intimately Marablesque as the distressed briefcase and bungeed handcart that careened behind him as he trudged up Amsterdam Avenue en route to his Manhattan office.
I will always acknowledge my political and intellectual debt to Marable the scholar-activist. But today I remember the man I never seemed capable of referring to simply as "Manning," though many of his students did. I remember his outfits, those khaki short sets in the summer, the gleam of his shins when he badly needed more sun. I remember his prodigious gossip. Damn, that man could gossip! Marable would prattle on and on, disclosing (with no real prompting, and with little concern for redundancy) the most salacious tales about grown folks — famous or semifamous people he knew — while you stood there, horrified.
I remember Marable's smile, that kindly, shining expanse of underbite, and the endearing gawk you received when you told him anything even vaguely surprising. I remember his flourishing gesticulations, especially the rolling hand, a sure indication that he found insightful or simply appreciated whatever point you were making at the time. The swifter the hand-roll, the greater his approval. When that orbiting hand slowed, you knew you were veering off course.
Marable's exuberance occasionally got the better of him. To hear him tell it, he was always on the verge of some tremendous coup, some unparalleled feat of institution building that would ennoble black America (or at least nearby Harlem) and catapult his graduate students to academic fame. You were always enthralled by his quixotic plans, despite your better judgment, and you found yourself floating out his office door, eager to meet the new day that he so lovingly described.
Marable was a weaver of dreams. He had more energy, more big ideas, more notions of how to set us all free, than two lifetimes could contain. Few scholars have proved more prolific, both as intellectuals and as mentors of legions of admiring students.
I will miss Marable's generosity and the example of his unfaltering work ethic. I will miss his encouragement. Yet if, as teacher and activist, I am someday able to motivate and inspire young people as profoundly as has Marable, I suspect that he will be right there with me, grinning broadly, his hand spinning like crazy.
Russell Rickford is an assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College; the biographer of Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's wife; and the editor of Beyond Boundaries: The Manning Marable Reader.