Tavis: Dr. Manning Marable was a giant in the field of Black studies, serving as the director of the Institute for Research and African American Studies at Columbia. On Friday, Dr. Marable passed away at the age of 60, just a few days before the release of his long-awaited biography on Malcolm X. “Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention” is in stores today and it’s being called the definitive text on the life of the iconic Black activist. Dr. Marable was due to join us on this program just days from now, a conversation I was, of course, eagerly anticipating.
Instead, tonight we’ll revisit my conversation with him from 2006 on the release of a previous text called “Living Black History.” As fate would have it, on the day he appeared on this program, Coretta Scott King was laid to rest in Atlanta. Today just happens to be the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
As you’ll see in the conversation we covered a lot of ground that night, including what Marable saw as an incomplete telling of the life of Malcolm X.
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Tavis: Professor Marable, nice to have you on the program, sir.
Dr. Manning Marable: Thank you, Tavis, it’s great to be here.
Tavis: Nice to have you on. Let me start with the sad news of the day and then we’ll move on to how we can build up on the legacy left by one Coretta Scott King. Of course, we all know that earlier today in Atlanta she was laid to rest. Your thoughts on the legacy and the living Black history that Coretta Scott King contributed to.
Marable: Coretta Scott King will go down in the annals of American history as a woman of remarkable courage and endurance. Without her vision and commitment to the ideals of her husband, we would not today have the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. We would not have the infrastructure for a King Center.
I believe that history will show that she was truly an equal partner with Dr. King, and in many ways, when the two met several years prior to the launching of the Civil Rights movement, she was more progressive and more political than Martin was when they were in graduate school. So her partnership and her ideas helped to shape his evolution, in many ways more than most people are aware.
Tavis: Beyond that point, which is very significant and I’m glad you shared it with us to remind us she did, in fact, go about carving out her own legacy, tell me how difficult you think that was in light of the fact that the guy she was standing next to was a guy named Martin King. How does one go about creating one’s own legacy and becoming living history oneself in that kind of shadow?
Marable: It’s extremely difficult. I think that the way – what I would liken it to is the relationship, the close friendship that has cultivated, I’ve cultivated with Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, there is a parallel to it. Medgar had the toughest civil rights job in the United States, being the field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi for nearly a decade.
When he was shot in front of his family home in 1963, he instantly became a civil rights legend, an icon. How do you assert yourself as an active, involved civil rights person, as an intellectual the way Myrlie was, in the wake of that terrible loss? Coretta Scott King faced a similar dynamic, even though for Coretta it was even more daunting because King was a worldwide figure.
He was, perhaps, at his death one of the three or four most influential figures on Earth. His speeches were read by millions, had been memorized by millions of people, so how do you assert yourself? Both in Myrlie’s case and in Coretta’s case, with incredible dignity, with grace and with courage, they asserted themselves around practical tasks to ensure their husband’s ideals would live on in the pursuit of their respective careers.
Tavis: Let me ask what the value of Black history is. Every February – I see the grin on your face – every February, don’t ask me how we chose the coldest, shortest, darkest month of the year to do this in –
Marable: Thank you.
Tavis: Such a rich culture and heritage we have, condensed in 28 days. But that notwithstanding, what is the value of us pausing, at least for these 28 days once a year, to talk about Black history? I want to know your perspective on the value of it for Black folk and for folk who happen not to be Black. What’s the value?
Marable: The value is very simple. We all live history every day, but Black folk and white folk in America have always talked about history in radically different ways. White Americans, for hundreds of years, have emphasized, as they reconstruct the meaning of the past, they emphasize values such as individual liberty and the ownership of private property as part of the American dream.
For African Americans, we’ve always understood, since 1619, that there was no such thing as an individual slave rebellion launched by a single person. That freedom was always a collective project and that from that point on, as we construct our memories of the past, white racism has always sought to discredit or to literally destroy evidence of atrocities and racial injustice.
Black history’s logic has been to build a capacity, an argument, for the freedom, not just for African Americans, but for all people regardless of race, regardless of their socioeconomic class or gender. So in “Living Black History” I try to document innumerable examples of how Black history is being lost and being destroyed, and part of that has to do with the suppression of Black history.
I give a lot of examples – Tulsa, Oklahoma. I recently visited and spoke at the University Of Tulsa at the M.L. King Day. Here’s a city in the middle of America where in 1921 2,500 African Americans were burned out of their homes, several hundred were killed, and this racial atrocity was suppressed for over 60 years.
In New York City in 1991, as they expanded the federal courthouse and they were digging down into the bedrock of Manhattan Island, they discovered 19,000 corpses of African people who had been buried over a century – today’s African burial ground.
This is a metaphor for the contestation that history, as a site of struggle, always is in a racialized society. After all, we were the first stock on the stock exchange. That African people built the wall on Wall Street. That if you go back in time and interrogate America’s past, you find African Americans being at the heart of the American experience, building, in part, much of the wealth upon which the society has been produced. That is why there is a deliberate effort to suppress that historical knowledge.
Tavis: Let me jump in right here, because you said a number of things I’m fascinated by but one that I definitely want to get to before my time runs out, and that is this notion of the fact that for white folk and Black folk, we see the freedom struggle differently, and I got that point. I’m fascinated by your formulation, though, that for Black folk, freedom has always been collective project.
I get that. I was on a plane not long ago, Manning, and talking to a white guy who recognized me and sat next to me on the plane said to me – asked me, in fact; not said to me, asked me why it was that Black folk have done so well individually. He started running the names of Black folk who’ve done well on an individual basis, but why we struggle so much as a collective. How would you have answered this white guy on the plane who asked me that question?
Marable: We have to introduce him to the concept of structural racism. Back 300 years ago, we had a triangle of racism. We called it the Triangle Slave Trade that brought millions of African people to the new world, connecting Africa to the Americas to Europe. Today, there’s a new triangle. In my book, “Living Black History,” I talk about the colorblind racism of the twenty-first century.
A triangle that links mass unemployment, mass incarceration and mass disenfranchisement, that the history of the future that is being made now is structuring a future for Black folk to remove us from civic conversation and democratic institutions, to limit or to reduce millions of people from having voting rights. Now have you a state like Mississippi where 30 percent of Black males in that state lost the right to vote for life.
Tavis: But Manning, that doesn’t sound to me like colorblind racism, it sounds to me like they know exactly who they are targeting.
Marable: Seems that way, but the white and Colored signs have been taken down. We live under a very different kind of racial domain. Fifty years ago, the history that Martin and Malcolm and Medgar had to encounter in the struggle for Black freedom was quite different than the colorblind racism of the 21st century.
In a way, Jim Crow was always a curse and perverse blessing, because whether you were a Ph.D. or you swept the streets, you rode in the back of the bus. In the unity of our oppression we felt a kinship, what the political scientist Michael Dawson refers to as “linked fate.” We were all part of a collective project to assert our freedom.
In “Living Black History” I try to talk about how important it is to document those struggles of the Black freedom movement of the 1960s and that so many of these artifacts of the civil rights and Black Power period are actually being lost. I talk about, for example, from the classic book by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography Of Malcolm X,” how there are three chapters that ended up being removed from the text, and where those chapters ended up – in a law office of a lawyer in Detroit – that virtually no one has ever seen.
How Malcolm’s political legacy is incomplete in part due to the gentrification of Black history. That artifacts are more valued by individual investors who can hold on to them and then market them for their own value, rather than putting them in a library or an archive and making them available to schoolchildren and for future generations.
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Tavis: Now, future generations will, in fact, have a fuller and more complete and complex understanding of Malcolm X thanks to Dr. Marable’s acclaimed new text, “Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention.” The book has been called his magnum opus and was more than two decades in the making.
Of his passing, Princeton scholar Cornel West called Dr. Marable “Our grand, radical, democratic intellectual,” adding, “He kept alive the democratic socialist tradition in the Black freedom movement.
Manning Marable died in New York on Friday at the age of 60.
That’s our show for tonight.
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