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By Zaheer Ali
On Thursday, May 26, 2011, Columbia University hosted a public celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Manning Marable.
My complete remarks* follow:
The last conversation I had with Dr. Marable was on the 3rd of March at the book signing for Beyond Boundaries, the recently published anthology of his writings edited by my colleague, Russell Rickford. As I walked into the room and our eyes met, he flashed that bright Marable smile and extended his hand to mine. I hadn’t seen him since his lung transplant surgery and there was so much we had to talk about; but I just said, “Glad to have you back Professor Marable.” He expressed great excitement on the eve of the release of his long-awaited biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, and said how much he was looking forward to discussing it with me.
Having traveled the journey of his Malcolm X Project from its earliest stages, I too expressed my excitement and anticipation. He and I had discussed and debated Malcolm for the past decade. He had tasked me with managing the Project for a few years, had assigned me to assistant teach his Malcolm X course, and had spent countless office hours with me exploring this or that theory about Malcolm, the NOI, Islam and Black nationalism. After he and I recounted some of our MXP adventures, our conversation came to a close as I said to him, “I can’t wait to read the book, and then discuss it with you.” And he then said what would be his final words to me: “Insha Allah.” At that point, I did a double-take and jokingly said, “What you know ‘bout that, Dr. Marable?” and he just smiled, so I too smiled and said, “Insha Allah.”
Arabic for “God-willing,” “Insha Allah” is a common phrase used by Muslims when stating expectations of a future event, in an attempt to be mindful of the role of Providence. At the time, I read his invocation of the phrase as his way of connecting with me personally as a Muslim—something he had done throughout our working relationship. He would schedule meetings around my Friday congregational prayer obligations, and would be sure to wrap up evening meetings in time for me to break my fast during Ramadan. This kind of acknowledgment and respect is indicative of the ways Dr. Marable created an open and welcoming space for a diverse group of students—Nationalists, Marxists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, progressives, whites, blacks, browns, gay, straight—and fostered academic exchange among us that was vibrant, rigorous and respectful of our differences.
Since April 1st, “insha Allah,” “God willing,” has taken on a greater meaning for me. At the time Dr. Marable said it, neither he nor I had any idea what would transpire. He never expressed any explicit religiosity, but as a historian he was keenly aware and respected the role religion had played in the Black freedom movement. And, as he furthered his study of Malcolm, what started out as a political biography took on additional layers as his appreciation of Malcolm’s faith as a Muslim deepened.
In the Islamic tradition, there is a saying by the Prophet Muhammad that goes, “When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge and righteous offspring who will pray for him.” Those of us who have stood here today have been beneficiaries of his knowledge and many of us recipients of his generosity. He was skilled at extracting resources from sometimes-recalcitrant institutions and using those resources to benefit broader communities and peoples. Closer to home, there is a genre of “how I met Manning” stories among graduate students—that usually begin with going to see him as a financially strapped student and end with being hired to manage this research project, edit that anthology, teach this class. He fully integrated us into his knowledge production machine: when Dr. Marable seized upon an idea it became the subject of a seminar that trained researchers who then worked on a conference that organized papers for publication in his SOULS journal and then a book. I am honored to be one of his intellectual offspring.
He taught us that great men do not make history; history creates the circumstances and opportunities whereby men and women make choices that result in greatness. Dr. Marable’s choices made him great. Whether we call it Providence, God’s Will or the unfolding of history, Dr. Marable’s passing has presented each of us who knew him with an opportunity to continue his legacy. Honoring him on this day is important, but it is also our responsibility to continue telling his story, to ensure the survival of the institutions he established and to become to others who he was to us–mentor, advisor, teacher and friend.
One day when he was leaving class after a lecture, he said to me “I’ve got the best job in the world—I get to teach Black freedom every day.” Now, we must do the same.
Zaheer Ali is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, where he is focusing his research on twentieth-century African-American history and religion.Under the direction of Dr. Manning Marable, he served as project manager and senior researcher of the Malcolm X Project (MXP) at Columbia University, a multi-year research initiative on the life and legacy of Malcolm X. As project manager, he was associate editor of an online annotated multimedia version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, developed by MXP and the Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) (2004), and was a lead researcher for Dr. Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011), a comprehensive biography on Malcolm X.