Remembering Distinguished Professor Leith Mullings, Pioneering Anthropologist Committed to Social Justice

The Graduate Center community is deeply saddened by the death of Distinguished Professor Emerita Leith Mullings (Anthropology), whose scholarship focused on inequality, its consequences, and resistance to it in the United States and other regions of the world and who was committed to addressing timely social issues and “empowering communities through knowledge.” Mullings died on December 13th from cancer that was recently diagnosed.

Professor Jeff Maskovsky (GC/Queens, Anthropology), executive officer of The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Anthropology called Mullings, who retired in 2016, “irreplaceable.” 

“It was a deep honor to have worked with Leith, and her death is a heartbreaking loss to The Graduate Center, the discipline of anthropology, our program, and to me personally,” he said. “Leith was a pioneer in Black feminist studies in anthropology.  She was famous for her work on race, class, and gender and for applying that framework in the ethnographic study of health, cities, and social movements.

“Everyone who knew Leith knew that she was deeply and indefatigably committed to social justice, and she pursued it relentlessly, inside and outside of the academy, in unique and creative ways.  In addition to her scholarship, Leith was also a generous and compassionate adviser.  Former and current students testify to the incredible support she gave them.  The long list of advisees she trained is an important and enduring legacy that stands alongside her scholarly work as an enormous achievement.”  

Professor Mullings’ research and writing focused on structures of inequality and resistance to them. Her research began in Africa and focused on traditional medicine and religion in postcolonial Ghana, as well as on women’s roles in Africa. Her scholarship in Africa, Latin America, and the United States analyzed a variety of topics including kinship, representation, gentrification, health disparities, and social movements through the lens of feminist and critical race theory. 

The numerous books and articles she wrote and edited reflected her global scholarship and included New Social Movements in the African DiasporaChallenging Global ApartheidGender, Race, Class and Health: Intersectional Approaches; On Our Own Terms: Race, Class and Gender in the Lives of African American Women; and Therapy, Ideology and Social Change: Mental Healing in Urban Ghana. She also published several books with her late husband, historian Manning Marable, including Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An Anthology of African American Social and Political Thought from Slavery to the Present, a widely used text in African American studies; and Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle. 

Mullings served as president of the American Anthropological Association from 2011 to 2013, and encouraged the Association to address issues of social justice. She was awarded the Society for the Anthropology of North America Prize for Distinguished Achievement in the Critical Study of North America and the French-American Foundation Prize: Chair in American Civilization, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 2015, Mullings was among the 32 scholars named as Andrew Carnegie Fellows in the program’s first year. She received grants from the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Kellogg Foundation. She served on the editorial boards of numerous academic journals and on the executive boards of the American Ethnological Society and the American Anthropological Association.

Born in Mandeville, Jamaica, Mullings began her undergraduate studies in nursing at Queens College. She received her undergraduate degree in nursing from Cornell University and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Before coming to The Graduate Center in 1988, she taught at Yale University, Columbia University, and the Sophie Davis School of Biomedicine at City College. 

Reflecting Mullings’ commitment to teaching and mentoring, dozens of her doctoral students, including many women of color, have gone on to successful academic and professional careers all over the country, from the faculties of Vanderbilt University, Fordham University, and The Graduate Center to Congressional committees. 

“It is such an honor to have had Leith Mullings as my adviser while in the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology,” said Professor Dána-Ain Davis (GC/Queens, Anthropology/Urban Studies), a Graduate Center alumna (Ph.D. ’01, Anthropology). “She shaped my intellectual development and supported my commitments to social justice. I am forever indebted to her for being my guiding light in a discipline and environment that felt complicated to me, a single mother with no background in anthropology. But more than that, I am glad she became my friend and that we shared incredible times together over the years. What I hope is that I have learned the lessons well about paving the way for others. And if I have done that, I will have done justice to her memory. It was a privilege to be part of Leith’s life.”

At her death, Mullings was completing a manuscript with Davis on the ethnohistory of the New York City African Burial Ground and was working on a comparative study of racism in five Latin American countries and the United States.

Mullings’ daughter, Alia Tyner-Mullings, an associate professor of sociology at Guttman Community College and a Graduate Center alumna (Ph.D. ’08, Sociology) said, “Beyond her family, our mother’s greatest joy was her students. She gave her all to her students.” 

Tyner-Mullings added, “In addition to her scholarly work on the foundations of racial and class oppression, she was above all a public intellectual who worked tirelessly to combat racism and all forms of social inequality, locally and globally. She was happy to see so many of her students succeed, as scholars and as public anthropologists, and appreciated The Graduate Center as an educational institution that both valued radical political thought and made space for politically engaged scholarship. We hope that all of the students who studied with her, engaged with her, and read her work will carry that work forward to both analyze inequality and to challenge it.” 

Mullings’ late husband, historian Manning Marable, died in 2011. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her son, Michael J. Tyner, a producer and director of documentary and scripted content and co-founder of Truth 2 Power Films.

The Graduate Center offers deepest condolences to Mullings’ family and all who knew and worked with her.  

The Anthropology program plans a future celebration in her honor.

Additional Tributes to Professor Mullings

Beyond her many articles, books, and grants, Leith Mullings stood as a pillar of what is good and virtuous about the academy—uncompromising integrity, steadfast support of family, students, and colleagues; and an unparalleled commitment to improving the health and well-being of others. A unique moral compass guided Leith Mullings as she charted a course that combines cutting-edge and politically astute scholarship with uncompromising ethics. In a period when academic spoils are often won by selfish careerism, Leith Mullings chose the steep and rutted path trod by such stalwarts as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Daisy Bates, Betty Shabazz, and Angela Davis. She took her roles as mother, teacher, mentor, collaborator, and friend as seriously as she took her critical scholarship.  We will be forever in her debt. 

Lee D. Baker, Duke University, Chair, Department of Cultural Anthropology

Leith Mullings was one of 32 inaugural recipients of an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship.  These fellowships are modeled on the MacArthur "Genius" Awards and provide support for distinguished scholars in the social sciences and humanities. [Recipients receive up to $200,000 to support proposed research and writing.] This is a wonderful recognition of Leith's achievements.  She received the award in support of her multi-country study of race and racism across the Americas. 

Akhil Gupta, President of American Anthropological Association 


More Remembrances of Professor Mullings

● Social Science Space: Leith Mullings, 1945-2020: Anthropologist Behind the Sojourner Syndrome

Submitted on: DEC 15, 2020

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