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.
What was remarkable about Marable is that he possessed none of the jealousies and backbiting that render the professional academic guild a highfalutin' version of hip-hop culture's lethal fratricidal tensions. Please don't be confused: Marable loved academic gossip and tidbits of underground cultural stories as much as the rest of us, but he was never mean-spirited or vicious in his often humorous relay of the folly or hubris of a colleague or acquaintance.
Marable was kind and sweet, a teddy bear of a patriarch who watched over his young charges with wise forbearance. And he proved, in the tender and enduring companionship that he forged with his life mate, the brilliant anthropologist Leith Mullings, that you can love and learn with a black woman and drink in her beauty and brains in one sweet swig.
Marable's huge hunger to tell the truth about black suffering could never be satisfied. In a relentless stream of articles, essays, newspaper columns and books, he detailed the burdens of race and class and how these forces — along with gender, age and sexual orientation — ganged up on black folk and mugged us at every turn, robbing us of our dignity and our right to exist without being ambushed by inequality and injustice.
Long before the term "public intellectual" became the rage, again, Marable showed us just what engaged academics worth their salt and degrees should be up to: offering sharp analysis of the social behaviors and political practices that shape or distort our democratic heritage, while encouraging the powerless to take on the mighty with pen and protest. Marable could never get enough of such work, and he taught us all how to combine sophisticated critical scrutiny and compassionate regard for the lowly, never putting either goal in jeopardy by neglecting the work that must be done to be both smart and good.
And now, even in death, Marable teaches us still. His magnum opus, his summum bonum — what all of his books on the urgent relevance of black politics, the pitfalls and seductions of capitalism, the ironic opportunities and vices of history, the romance and ruin of culture, and the triumphs and travails of race have built up to — is his book on Malcolm X, due out on Monday, April 4. It is now, sadly, a posthumously published masterwork that rescues the legendary leader from the catacombs of history, separating him from the hagiography of adoring acolytes and prying him free from the hateful grip of dismissive critics.
In death, Marable gives us a life's work. He speaks to us, too, in another way: the disease from which he perished, sarcoidosis, affects black folk in America far more than it does whites or other groups. Right down to his dying breath, Marable bore witness to the possibilities and pains, the privileges and limitations, of the black identity that he so brilliantly and bravely embraced.
I will sorely miss Marable as my very dear friend whom I love — my mentor, my colleague and big brother — and all of us will miss one of the greatest minds and one of the most forceful spirits this land and world have ever known.
Michael Eric Dyson is University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and the author of 17 books, including his latest, Can You Hear Me Now? The Inspiration, Wisdom and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson.