Manning Marable: 'Living Black History'

Ed Gordon talks with historian Manning Marable about his new book Living Black History, a look at black history's continuing importance to modern-day activism. Marable is a professor of history, political science and public policy at Columbia University.

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ED GORDON, host:

We now go from the tradition of preaching to the tradition of activism. In black history, they are inextricably linked. Dr. King and many other civil rights workers past and present are part of a long, rich culture of activism in black America. In his new book, "Living Black History," scholar Manning Marable aims to preserve and pass on those stories to a younger generation. Marable is a professor of history, political science and public policy at Columbia University. He says the book sheds useful light on the differences between what black and white Americans value about their historic pasts.

Professor MANNING MARABLE (Columbia University; Author, "Living Black History"): When white Americans talk about the experience of being an American, they emphasize values such as liberty, individualism and the right to personal property. But when black folk talk about being an American, they focus on collective concerns and group concerns. Given our unique heritage as people struggling to be free, that has given us a whole series of experiences and a heritage of resistance and collective struggle that unfortunately white Americans don't share with us.

GORDON: Manning, one of the interesting notes, too, in the book is that you show a direct correlation in terms of how one event can really change the course of life for so many and also touch on what may or may not have happened had these events not occurred. I'm speaking specifically of the chapter of Malcolm X's life after death and the idea also of the unfulfilled promise of Brown v. Board. There's just an interesting correlation between those two events.

Prof. MARABLE: Malcolm X was an extraordinary individual: talented, charismatic, a brilliant statesman and orator. But one of the things that's interesting and ironic about what happened in his life after death is that his intellectual legacy and the things he wrote became diffused, and there's something like 73 libraries who have a little chunk of Malcolm memorabilia; there are about 2 or 300 what I call kind of Malcolmites out here, Malcolmologists, who have dozens of audiotape lectures or different memorabilia of Malcolm. But many people have been extremely reluctant to let go of that material and place it in an archive.

And ironically, because of their love for him, they have helped to destroy him. I've encountered people with audiotapes that are 50 years old, clutching them, saying, `I have this important speech of Malcolm X's,' and I remind them that an audiotape, based on magnetic tape technology, last about 40 or 45 years. And what they may have is a useless piece of tape.

GORDON: (Technical difficulties) me ask you this. You have been writing of late about class and race based on what has occurred with the Gulf region over the course of the last few months.

Prof. MARABLE: That's right.

GORDON: Does it astound you that we are still grappling, fumbling, tripping over the issue of race and class in this country?

Prof. MARABLE: No, it doesn't surprise me as a historian in the least bit. The fundamental issue in American history has been the issue of race. To this day, when you look at the tragedy of Katrina and New Orleans and we see the RAND Corporation's recent speculation of remaking New Orleans, shrinking the size of the population from about 500,000 down to 275,000, eliminating perhaps as many as 200,000 African-Americans from the city, it makes you realize that there is an effort to erase the heritage of black people in this country, to remake the--how we imagine America's future to be by eliminating through a kind of colorblind racism where people don't use the N-word, but nevertheless a new form of racial stratification is on the way in.

GORDON: Manning, before we let you go, I want you to talk a bit about the subtitle and why you decided to attach that to the book.

Prof. MARABLE: "Living Black History's" subtitle is "How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Help Remake America's Racial Future." My goal was to awaken not just with--for black Americans, but for all Americans, a richer and deeper understanding of how we are connected with the racial conflicts of the past that are really at the heart of America's history, that Nat Turner's slave rebellion which occurred in 1831 in Virginia for the only sign of that rebellion that occurred for about two centuries was something called Blackhead Signpost Road, which was a street sign that existed not far from where the original rebellion was because it was a marker where a slave's severed skull had been placed at the head of a road by local whites as a warning to other slaves. And for two centuries, that name stood and, you know, we're disconnected from the name, but the act of violence itself echoes on in how we live our lives today in racially stratified ways.

What I tried to do was show that by a reconciliation, by coming to grips with the pain and tragedies of the past, we can create the context for racial reconciliation for the future. But it's reconciliation that's based on truth and on the foundation of understanding where we've been, rather than a misinterpretation of that.

GORDON: Manning Marable. The new book is "Living Black History."

It's always a pleasure to talk to you, and we appreciate it.

Prof. MARABLE: Great, Ed. You take care.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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Living Black History

How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America's Racial future

by Manning Marable

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