Marable, Manning 1950—
Manning Marable 1950—
Educator, author, activist
As professor of history and political science and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, Manning Marable is striving to bring intellectual leadership out of academia and into the black community, where he feels it is sorely needed. In so doing, he is following in the footsteps of his hero, African American sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois. “It’s not good enough for us to interpret and critique social, cultural, and political phenomena,” Marable told Michel N-K Collison of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “You can write the scholarship and have a passion for democratic change. Somehow a whole generation of black scholars seemed to forget that lesson.” While at Columbia, Marable hopes to transform the university’s fledgling program in black studies into one of the strongest in the nation, and to improve the institution’s often awkward relations with neighboring Harlem, the New York City neighborhood that has long been the center of African American culture.
Best known to black Americans for his weekly commentary series “Along the Color Line,” which appears in more than 250 newspapers and is broadcast by some 75 U.S. and international radio stations, Marable was founding director of the Africana and Hispanic studies program at Colgate University, chairman of the black studies program at Ohio State—the largest department of its kind in the nation—and coordinator of the Critical Studies of the Americas programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, before moving to Columbia in 1993. Since 1980, he has produced nine books focusing on black politics and the role of race and class in history, including How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Black Politics, and W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat.
Despite his reputation as a respected author and educator, Marable has maintained a relatively low profile in the country’s intellectual elite. His controversial views and openly Marxist stance have alienated many in the academic world, and some have argued that his writings are too vague, too superficial, to offer tangible solutions to the urgent sociological problems facing black Americans. According to Collison, Marable believes that there is “systematic injustice in American society and the system of corporate capitalism must be transformed to provide universal health care and jobs for everyone.” He
Lecturer, Smith College, 1974–76; associate professor of political science, Tuskegee University, 1976–78; associate professor of history, University of San Francisco, 1979; senior research associate and associate professor of political science, Cornell University, 1979–82; professor of economics and history, Fisk University, 1982–83; professor of sociology, Colgate University, 1983–86; professor of sociology and political science, Purdue University, 1986–87; professor and chairman of the Department of Black Studies, Ohio State University, 1987–89; professor of political science, history, and sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1989–93; professor of history and political science and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies, Columbia University, 1993—. Consultant to National Endowment for the Humanities; adviser to Congressional Black Caucus.
Member: National Black Political Assembly; Democratic Socialists of America; Committees of Correspondence; Organization of American Historians; Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History; National Council of Black Studies.
Addresses: Office —Institute for Research in African American Studies, Columbia University, 758 Schermerhorn Extension, New York, NY 10027.
At the same time, Marable has been criticized for his refusal to embrace a wholly “Afrocentric” point of view. He identifies class, rather than race, as the root of inequality in the United States, and advocates the formation of new, multicultural political alliances—similar to the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—wherein Americans of all backgrounds can voice their concerns and pool their strength. “The ’We Have Overcome’ generation has run out of intellectual creativity but refuses to leave the political stage,” he said in an interview with Scott Minerbrook of U.S. News & World Report. “Members of the new guard—the leaders of the hip-hop generation born after 1964—have the advanced political ideas but lack the ability to replace their fathers and mothers in leadership. We have to talk about the development of a new leadership that speaks Spanish and Cantonese and Japanese but is also at home with homeboys and homegirls in poor neighborhoods. It is fluent in the culture of hip-hop but also is comfortable with gay and lesbian rights organizations and Hispanic East Los Angeles gang organizations.”
The mission of Columbia’s new Institute for Research in African American Studies is to examine the problems of race and inequality in urban American and to “extend the black intellectual tradition expressed within African American Studies toward the goals of multicultural dialogue and a genuinely nonracist, democratic society,” he explained in the inaugural issue of Race & Reason, the institute’s biannual journal.
Marable was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1950. During his childhood, he received dozens of history books as Christmas presents, and he soon became intrigued by the workings of politics and sociology. “It was decided in utero that I would be a historian,” he told Chronicle of Higher Education contributor Collison. While attending Earlham College in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was strongly influenced by the work of left-wing political scientists such as Walter Rodney, whose book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa served as the inspiration for Marable’s own provocative study How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America.
After receiving his bachelor of arts in American history in 1971, Marable went on to complete a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and in 1976 received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. While completing his doctorate, he spent two years as a lecturer at Smith College. He went on to teach political science, history, economics, and sociology at a string of institutions across the country, from Tuskegee and Fisk universities in the South, the University of San Francisco in the West, Purdue and Ohio State in the Midwest, to Colgate, Williams, and Cornell University in the Northeast.
Marable produced his first book, From the Grassroots: Social and Political Essays Towards Afro-American Liberation, in 1980 while serving as a senior research fellow and associate professor of political economy at Cornell. Two years later he moved to Nashville to teach history and economics at Fisk, and to take over the directorship of the university’s Race Relations Institute. Within one year, however, he found himself back in New York State, teaching sociology and spearheading the development of the new Africana and Hispanic studies program at Colgate University.
Ever eager for new challenges, in 1986 Marable moved to Indiana, where he spent one year as a professor of sociology and political science at Purdue University. The following year he was offered the chairmanship of the department of black studies at Ohio State. He left there in 1989 to become a professor of history and political science and coordinator of the Critical Studies of the Americas programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Then, in 1993, four years into his tenure at Colorado, Columbia University made him an offer he could not refuse: In addition to generous financial support, the university promised him an opportunity to build an entirely new kind of black studies program from the ground up. “There was a program on the books but it didn’t really exist,” Marable told Collison. “They had a number of professors who write and research in the field. But up until my appointment there was no one who provided the intellectual leadership and the sweat equity necessary to build a program.”
Founded in July of 1993, the Institute for Research in African American Studies directs and administers the undergraduate concentration in African American studies at Columbia; supports research projects involving scholars from around the world; and operates the Intercultural Resource Center, an off-campus residential facility that offers multicultural programming both to students at Columbia and members of the surrounding community. The institute, which is committed to the motto “Academic Excellence and Social Responsibility,” brings together “scholarly analyses that explore the historical, cultural, and social contours of Harlem and of urban black America generally, with a commitment to social responsibility addressing the contemporary political and economic problems that challenge race relations throughout our society,” Marable wrote in Race & Reason. Its close proximity to Harlem, he added, “serves as a constant reminder that intellectual work has a powerful and practical connection with the problems of daily life experienced by African Americans and others.”
The concept of an institute devoted to the study of black culture dates back to the turn of the century, when sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois introduced a series of academic conferences on black social issues at Atlanta University. In the 1940s, a group of scholars and civil rights advocates, led by sociologist Charles S. Johnson, founded the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University. Established in the South at the height of Jim Crow segregation, the institute was intended to focus scholarly attention on the dynamics of racial inequality. Later, during the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the Institute of the Black World, based in Atlanta, carried on the tradition of socially responsible African American scholarship.
Marable, who, according to Collison, describes himself as an “intellectual child” of Du Bois, believes that the discipline of African American studies must challenge and critique many of the racist assumptions and theories of inequality that still underlie traditional scholarship, and that this new scholarship should propose workable solutions or strategies for empowering black people throughout the world. Marable “embodies a credo of academic excellence in the context of activism,” Cornell professor of political sociology James E. Turner told Collison. “He does not believe in isolated academic reflection for its own sake.”
In keeping with Marable’s commitment to activism and political change, the African American studies program he has helped to develop at Columbia focuses on black politics, public policy, and history, rather than the humanities. “Few African American Studies departments and programs have given significant attention to the emergence of a new set of black political leaders, especially in the context of urban America,” he wrote in Race & Reason. “The Institute systematically examines a host of issues focusing on the dynamics of black representation and empowerment: the future of the Civil Rights Movement and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the unique problems and the agenda confronting African American state and local officials, especially in New York; styles of political protest and strategies for public policy influence; the development of skills and policy analysis for newly emerging black leaders in a wide variety of public and private institutions; and an assessment of significant electoral campaigns by African American candidates in national, state, and local contests.”
In addition to organizing public lectures, educational forums, and conferences that examine issues of public policy and explore prospects for multiracial and multicultural political coalition-building in urban politics, the institute sponsors an ongoing series of research programs. Chief among them is a project entitled “Politics and Theory in the Black World,” introduced by Marable at the University of Colorado in 1991 and relocated to Columbia in the fall of 1993.
Created to establish an international network of scholars concerned with ideological debate, political movements, pivotal elections, and social issues in black communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, and the United States, the project has gained the active support of dozens of prominent scholars, writers, and researchers. Other major research projects organized by the institute include “Black Leadership and Public Policy,” which focuses on the African American community’s efforts to achieve power, social development, and influence within the political system; and “Identity, Inequality, and Power,” which explores poverty, violence, the destruction of families, ethnic intolerance, and other factors that help to perpetuate social inequality within American society.
In a series of books and articles published during the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s, Marable argued that the black community was in the midst of a massive social, economic, and political crisis that could not be resolved through traditional political and economic channels. In an issue of the Progressive, published in January of 1987, he took issue with black conservative spokesman Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who had argued that focusing on “civil-rights solutions” did not “translate into economic equity.”
Woodson’s “basic argument—that ‘political power does not translate into economic power’—is an oversimplification,” Marable wrote. “It is true that specific social classes with political leverage may not wield similar authority in the marketplace, and vice versa. But it is pure fantasy to suggest that social classes or even ethnic groups that achieve a level of political empowerment do not at least indirectly increase their capacity to realize their objective interests in the economic realm.”
According to Marable, the rise of black neoconservatives, such as Woodson, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Glenn Loury during the mid-1980s was directly linked to the failure of the Democratic party to deliver what it had promised to black Americans. “Black voters amount to 20 percent of the national Democratic bloc in presidential elections, yet blacks are still treated as second-class citizens in the Democratic party,” he wrote in The Progressive. “A national environment of apathy toward the African American condition translates into an insular political mentality among blacks themselves:’If our leaders are ineffective, if our organizations lack vision, and if the political system has turned against us, who will champion our interests?’ This reasoning has led many blacks to one of two strategies. The first is the black Reaganism of Sowell, Loury, and company, an updated version of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationism. The second, potentially far more dangerous, is an unprecedented alliance with extreme ultra-rightists, while continuing to pay lip service to the black community’s traditional interests.”
Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was a step in the right direction, Marable added, but Jackson’s failure to gain the support of a wide cross-section of the black community during the 1984 presidential primaries stemmed from his alliance with the traditional arm of the Democratic party, the central tenets of which, according to Marable, differed only slightly from those of Reagan republicanism.
“The crisis of black politics can only be resolved through the development of multiclass, multiracial, progressive political structures—agencies that bring together all elements of the black community,” Marable wrote in the Progressive. “The Rainbow Coalition has the potential for uniting the educated and relatively affluent black middle class with the vast majority of blacks who remain unemployed, impoverished, or within the working class. The Coalition also may reach out to the traditional labor movement, to feminists, peace activists, and segments of the old liberal alliance that hold the greatest promise for a new progressive coalition of the 1990s. In the long run, though, success for such a coalition depends on a radical realignment of the Democratic party—and probably a decisive split between the party’s liberal and conservative wings. Until that occurs, we can expect the continued defection of some black politicians to the right and a deepening of the crisis inside the black electorate.”
In addition to his teaching and research work, Marable serves as an adviser to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and is national co-chairperson of the Committees of Correspondence. He is also an active member of both the Democratic Socialists of America and the National Black Independent Party. According to Collison, it is his participation in these radical organizations, combined with his outspoken adherence to the views of communist theorist Karl Marx, that have prevented him from becoming better known among mainstream academics. “I think his work is respected among people on the left, but it hasn’t crossed over to a broad spectrum of thinking,” Harvard Law professor Randall L. Kennedy told Collison.
Many praise Marable’s prolific output of scholarly material but criticize him for not being “black enough,” and for failing to offer specific, “real-life” solutions to the political and sociological problems he describes. Others even chide him for styling his salt-and-pepper hair like that of nineteenth-century author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. But in the opinion of Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it is only a matter of time before Marable makes his mark in New York City. “He’s been in the Midwest,” Dodson told Collison in Chronicle of Higher Education. “He’s been removed from the mainstream. Manning never played the New York stage. But I suspect in the next year or two he’ll be discovered.”
Columbia University’s provost, Jonathan R. Cole, concurs. “Mr. Marable is an extraordinary teacher and public figure who will establish a premier program,” he said. “With the resources of the city and university, and the linkages to institutions like the Schomburg, I think it will be unmatchable.” Marable himself believes that his time has finally come. During the Reagan and Bush years, he told Collison, it was “very difficult for someone who identified himself as a democratic socialist to be heard. Now with the end of the cold war, you can be heard. And that’s what’s happening.”
How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society, South End Press, 1983.
Black American Politics: From the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson, Verso, 1985.
W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, Twayne, 1986.
African and Caribbean Politics: From Kwame Nkrumah to the Grenada Revolution, Verso, 1987.
Race Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945–1990, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
The Crisis of Color and Democracy: Essays on Race, Class, and Power, Common Courage Press, 1992.
Black Water: Historical Essays, University Press of Colorado, 1993.
Chronicle of Higher Education, October 20, 1993, pp. A15–17.
Essence, November 1990, p. 130; May 1991, p. 42.
Grapevine Weekly, August 6, 1981.
Progressive, January 1987, pp. 18–23; December 1992, p. 42; February 1993, pp. 20–25.
Race & Reason, Autumn 1994.
U.S. News & World Report, July 18, 1994, p. 29.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
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