An undergraduate chemistry major couldn’t ignore the tug of history, roused by his own youthful home life filled with art, labor philosophy, Afro-Latin rhythms, and the powerful ideas of far-away freedom fighters. The student, Patrick Manning, moved beyond chemistry to lead Pitt’s new World History Center, which explores the sweeping science of human conditions, currents, and consequences.
Written by Ervin Dyer
The young scholar stirs awake just after dawn, as a warm ocean breeze billows into his room in Porto-Novo, West Africa. In the early morning stillness, he leaves his spare quarters at the Hotel of the Deputies and walks downstairs to a large dining hall, mostly empty except for the quiet wait staff. He selects a table, where he takes his instant coffee and bread. He eats, accompanied only by the music that plays from an old radio set in a corner. After breakfast, he walks through the hotel doors to stroll along the streets, awash in sunlight, in this petite capital, a coastal city wedged between green hills, overlooking a palm-lined lagoon.
Graduate student Patrick Manning is in the Republic of Dahomey conducting research to complete his PhD dissertation. It’s his first visit to Africa, and the experience is stunning.
On his daily walks, the dirt streets of Porto-Novo glow with a rainbow of bright fabrics as statuesque women carry on their heads baskets filled with oranges, tomatoes, and other produce. The narrow avenues are a carnival of markets and merchants who sell everything from drums to masks to salts, cigarettes, and sardines. Everybody, it seems, wants to shake hands. Manning gives coins to a beggar gnawed by leprosy. He’s awed by the steward at the jumbled transit station who, each day, remembers the faces of hundreds of people and matches them with the bicycles left in his charge.
All of this chaotic beauty is tinged with remnants of empires past. Youngsters call him “yovo,” a friendly label for a foreigner that Westerners often mistranslate to mean White. On the street, an elderly woman salutes him, signaling hello. But the salute also raises the specter of the French colonial past, when indigenous people were treated by colonizers as subservient or invisible. The incident dazes the yovo, who instantly feels a mix of emotions. He nods quickly to the woman and moves along.
Manning, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has come to this West African republic for a few months to gather data on the country’s economic history from 1880 to 1914. Day after day, the tall, thin American in the dark-rimmed glasses travels on foot to the Archives Nationales. In time, he becomes weak with malaria and worn down by the intense research, but there’s something seductive about rummaging through dusty papers in a faraway land, watching your work come to life.
Even more so, for Manning, there’s something deeply provocative about the vibrant open-air humanity that thrives here, in a land once known as the Slave Coast. This is where his enduring affair with Africa truly begins. This is the fountainhead of his quest to explore and decipher something much bigger—the history of the world.
Today, Manning is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of World History and director of the newly established World History Center at Pitt.
From the center’s lens, the world is a vast multitude of regions, long-ago periods, and a menagerie of peoples, cultures, and ideas that are forever colliding with and changing one other. For Manning and others linked to the World History Center, their mission is to go into the world and discover these connections across space, topics, and time—and to share what they find.
“World historians,” says Manning, “want to see what is happening on the planet. We want to talk about the history of Africa, the history of Latin America, Europe, Asia. But we want a discussion across the regions, too.”
The center exists as a place where scholars and students can delve into the interconnections of human history. Through research, teaching, and global collaborations, those affiliated with the center are gathering knowledge about wide-ranging global policies and practices—industrialization, globalization, urbanization. They’re seeking potential solutions to the great dramas of the human panorama—privilege and poverty, pride and prejudice, war and peace.
Specifically, among the center’s goals are expanding the horizons of historical study, including the use of large-scale analysis; creating a global community of scholars to explore the human past; and pursuing transregional, interdisciplinary, and interactive approaches to the study of human history.
For at least a century, world history has been incorporated into high school studies, but most universities have preferred to focus on specific regions or topics in history to enable in-depth study. In the past few decades, however, interest in world history as a university discipline has grown significantly. History scholars are beginning to encourage the study of patterns of change and continuity as a way to help students grapple with how climate, migration, agriculture, disease, water, and technology influence the world, not just a discrete region.
At Pitt, the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences has forged a national reputation for its graduate studies of Atlantic history, spanning continents. Now, the department’s World History Center is poised to go farther.
Professor Marcus Rediker, the department’s chair, first met Manning in the late 1990s. They began conversing at a conference on maritime history, and they shared common intellectual concerns, including the Black Atlantic, both believing that more attention should be paid to Africa. Rediker was impressed with Manning’s vision to expand scholarship to transnational histories, as well as his thoughts on moving graduate programs toward a more global perspective. At the time, Manning was a professor at Northeastern University, where he ultimately taught for 22 years and created the nonprofit World History Network, Inc., which fosters research in global history. An expert on the economic history of Africa, Manning also conducts research on the African slave trade and demographic history, African social and cultural history, the African diaspora as part of a global history of humans, and world history in general.
When the opportunity arose, Rediker recruited the Northeastern scholar to bring his expertise to Pitt. Manning arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. Since then, he has taught a variety of classes (including a team-taught class with Rediker), mentored graduate students, collaborated with professors across departments, constructed links with scholars around the globe, and, a year ago, opened the University’s World History Center.
Tucked into a corner of Posvar Hall’s third floor, the center is an intellectual niche, a space where faculty, students, visiting scholars, and interns work together. It is filling with colorful objects of global art and culture, as well as ideas for groundbreaking research. Center scholars, for instance, are developing a geographic database, conducting world history workshops, and building a research registry on historical processes.
Loosely modeled on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the center aims to lay the foundation for a global academy, using a toolbox that draws from natural science, social science, and the humanities to support graduate study, multidisciplinary research, teacher outreach, and worldwide collaboration.
“We knew we had a builder, a creator,” says Rediker, explaining the confluence of interpersonal, organizational, and scholarship skills that Manning has brought to Pitt. A graduate program in world history will be launched within two years, but students are already attracted to the energy of Manning and the center.
“To many students, Professor Manning is an encourager, a visionary, someone who helps them think about their place in the world, the possibilities, and then helps them to get there,” says Deborah Smith Johnston, who began her career as a high school history teacher, then attended Northeastern as a doctoral student in world history. Manning was her advisor. The two scholars have collaborated on projects such as providing world history teaching techniques to high school teachers and designing a
curriculum for world history as an advanced class in high school.
In his own classes, Manning is calm-spoken, his words carefully chosen. Quick to smile, he sits encircled by students. A composed, self-contained figure, the professor is a blend of California casual and East Coast cool, prone to wearing cardigans and gentle earth tones. In warm weather, he sometimes wears a dashiki, a colorful African shirt. He remains silent when his students wrestle with class content, working their way through their thoughts. When they’re done, he’ll push for more: “Can you dig into that a little more deeply?”
About 8,000 miles separate West Africa’s Porto-Novo and Manning’s birthplace, Orange County, Calif., a land of canyons, beaches, and sky. But much in his early biography foreshadows his adult journey. The son of a laborer and an artist, he received an early education in the world beyond the canyons. His mother, Marian Curtis, was a realist painter of portraits and still lifes. She once poured her talents into African sculpture. “Perhaps,” says Manning, “an omen of my later life.”
His dad, John, was a factory union worker and an internationalist. Both parents were interested in the wider world. The rhythms of music from Latin America, the Caribbean, Central Asia, and Europe played often inside their house. At home, the young Manning read the Hispanic press and the L.A. Tribune, a Black newspaper that posted stories on visiting African dignitaries, linking their lives to Black Americans.
In the summer of 1960, a year after he graduated from high school, Manning was riding to work with his father. They were digging ditches for a new tunnel into Los Angeles. That summer, the teen became intrigued by the powerful speeches of Congo freedom leader Patrice Lumumba as they flowed from international news reports on his dad’s car radio. Manning, a first-year college student, became fascinated by the drama of independence unfolding in a far-away place called the Congo.
A top student in high school and president of the student body, Manning turned down a fellowship at Stanford to attend California Institute of Technology, where he majored in chemistry and minored in history. At Caltech, he discovered his passion for history, especially after one of his teachers invited foreign journalists to share their adventures covering the world.
He earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry, but when he entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was ready to explore the world of history, especially the vast mysteries of Africa.
That’s how, eventually, he spent time living in Porto-Novo in the Republic of Dahomey—now called Benin. Although his doctoral research focused on economics—leading to master’s degrees in both economics and history—his research also delved into African migration and other aspects of the continent’s impact on world history. He says the African diaspora is a quilt of cultural interactions that moved across oceans, giving shape to global identities, communities, and family and economic conditions that have shaped Black lives for centuries.
Today, Manning is the author or coauthor of 12 books and dozens of other publications and commentaries. His latest book, The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture (Columbia University Press), explores this phenomenon. With more than 300 pages of lucid prose and scholarship that trace the movement of captive Africans across the Atlantic, the book explores linkages between regions of Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas and examines the transformations brought by social struggles and the representation of the Black experience in song, literature, family life, and spiritual expression.
African history is a portal to world history, says Manning. There are a billion people of African descent on Earth.How their ancestors worked, lived, struggled, and moved around the globe dramatically influenced world history, as well as their connections to one other—it changed economic systems and brought cultural innovations. Slavery and its aftermath redirected global identities and political processes for centuries. The African diaspora even gave rise to a significant share of modernity.
“I wrote the book because studies of Africa have been so myopic. I see with world history that Africa is one big chunk of humanity; the African diaspora is a bigger chunk … and there has been little linkage between them.” Until now.
Back in his own office in Posvar Hall, Manning sits dwarfed by a wall of books. Behind him, there is a “Free Mandela” poster and a flier on a Black history festival. He muses silently as he looks into the distance across the leafy campus, probing more deeply into his own thoughts about why he studies Africa. A question that once irritated him, he now relishes.
After a minute, he offers: “It is the idea of thinking of Africa as part of the world, of looking across boundaries. I wanted to understand African perspectives, and I’m finding there is so much to it …. There will never be a time when I would have the sophistication to not be surprised at what we can discover there.”
On a shelf nearby sits a large black- and-white photograph. In it, a tall, young scholar stands in a white, short-sleeved shirt. He is surrounded by four men in local dress. One is clutching a small boy. The young scholar is Manning,
surrounded by new friends, in Porto- Novo all those years ago. The grainy image remains special to him. His African journey had just begun; it was an early experience of dipping deep into the well of other cultures.
Decades have passed since that first visit to West Africa, yet still for Manning each discovery, each connection across the human panorama is like stepping out into the sunshine of a new world.