There were a number of memorable moments in the four-day memorial conference dedicated to Dr. Manning Marable at Columbia University and other sites. A telephone conversation between Angela Davis and the incarcerated Mumia Abu-Jamal; professor Peniel Joseph’s passionate outpouring for Marable; Dr. Scot Brown’s presentation of Marable’s connection to the funk music of Dayton, Ohio; and the almost daily encomiums from Johanna Fernandez, Russell Rickford and Robyn Spencer, who coordinated the event, were among the highlights.
Just seeing the likes of Horace Campbell, James Turner, Nellie Bailey, Cathy Cohen, Rosa Clemente, Glen Ford, Jeff Perry, Frederick Harris, Keith Beauchamp, Robert Harris, Zinga Fraser, Patrick Delices, Robin Kelley and William Jelani Cobb, and to know that Leith Mullings, Marable’s widow, is holding up well since the passing of her husband a year ago at age 60, three days before the release of his biography of Malcolm X, was rewarding enough, according to several veteran activists and scholars.
The lengthy title of the affair, “A New Vision of Black Freedom: Reinvigorating Social Theory, Redefining Political Struggle,” and the nearly 40 panels and plenary sessions touched on practically every aspect of Marable’s considerable scholarship and academic prowess.
Perhaps only Marable himself would have had the energy and skill to tackle the variety of topics, from the models of Black leadership to urban economics, socialism and social change. More than one participant cited Marable’s study “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America” as a seminal text and one of monumental influence on political economy and social thought.
“Manning’s scholarship transformed our study of Black history,” said Peniel Joseph as he shared the stage with Bill Fletcher Jr., Agustin Lao-Montes and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who moderated the panel at the Schomburg Center, where he is the chief curator. “He was perhaps the most intellectually ambitious scholar we’ve ever produced,” Joseph continued.
Fletcher insisted that the event not be seen as a memorial, “but to use Manning’s work as a jumping-off point” to bring about change. Addressing a few comments to the controversy surrounding Marable’s book on Malcolm X, Fletcher believed that the book may not be one his generation can discuss. “But that’s what happens when you transform a man into a demigod,” he added.
What followed was a lively question-and-answer session, with several folks from the audience criticizing the panel for not having a woman in the mix and others feeling that at least one person could have been included to offer a different view of Marable’s book.
That gender issue would be corrected on several other panels, and during one about the media and social activism, countervailing opinions would prevail on Marable’s biography, though they were mindful of hewing to the subject at hand.
Another remarkable surprise was the film footage of Marable discussing the significance of C.L.R. James’ work thanks to Biko Agozino, who shared a panel with Martha Biondi, Todd Steven Burroughs and Brown. Along with James, Marable often drew inspiration from the formidable W.E.B. Du Bois, and of course, there was the acknowledgment he extended indirectly to his colleague, the late Walter Rodney.
Burroughs did a wonderful job of situating Marable within the journalistic tradition, particularly his column that earned him national acclaim and paved the way to the countless essays and subsequent books, while Biondi focused her comments on Marable’s concern for feminist issues, “and his struggle against patriarchy.”
Despite the occasional interruptions during their conversation, the dialogue between Davis and Abu-
Jamal was as informative as expected, and they both proved eminently informed on the problem of mass incarceration. “I’m well-schooled on that subject,” Abu-Jamal almost said in jest, having spent 29 years on death row and now in general prison population.
Abu-Jamal delivered a riveting story about the visit of his literary agent Francis Goldin to the penitentiary and her reaction to the “dog cages” that contained the inmates. “She broke down in tears at something I had come to accept as normal,” he told Davis.
“If you are free, then you must free someone else,” Davis repeated during her closing remarks.
Abu-Jamal’s most salient conclusions were directed at the media, which he said were most responsible for the demonization of young Black men. After noting the travesty of justice surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, he observed that “the real killer is the media that criminalizes young Black men.”
The media and its impact on American social and political thought was at the core of the discussion on one of the final panels, where Vicky Gholson, Lez Edmond and Jared Ball provided provocative and thorough analysis of the media, especially the corporate merging that has all but eliminated the voice of the people.
Save for the critique of his book, it was a discussion that Marable would have enjoyed and met with the full force of his phenomenal intellect.
It was an exhausting four days, and I only regret not being around for the final plenary and the appearances of Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, two of the Central Park Five who were falsely accused of raping a jogger in 1989. Their cases were eventually vacated when another confessed to being the assailant.