THE DEAD ARE ARISING
The Life of Malcolm X
By Les Payne and Tamara Payne
Les Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising” arrives in late 2020, bequeathed to an America choked by racism and lawlessness. The book’s subject, Malcolm X, knows this place well, though he died in 1965. Readers may pick up this biography hoping for a celebration of Black pride and resilience in the midst of madness. Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who devoted nearly 30 years to the book before his death in 2018, meets these needs intermittently, but that is not his primary goal. Malcolm’s presence is beautifully rendered, but “The Dead Are Arising,” which was ultimately completed by Payne’s daughter and principal researcher, Tamara Payne, is not a tribute or enshrinement of achievements. Instead, it reconstructs the conditions and key moments of Malcolm’s life, thanks to hundreds of original interviews with his family, friends, colleagues and adversaries. Nobody has written a more poetic account.
This book reveals more of Malcolm’s childhood than we have ever seen. The Paynes’ research elucidates a family history of American racial terror that preceded his birth in 1925. Malcolm’s middle-class parents moved several times, often into neighborhoods they knew were hostile, confronting the Ku Klux Klan, local officials and bigoted employers. His father, Earl Little, died when Malcolm (born Malcolm Little) was 6, the victim of a streetcar accident that Malcolm later suspected was a cover-up for the work of a racist mob.
His mother, Louise, kept the family together as long as she could, but eventually succumbed to poverty and mental illness. Malcolm, then 13, and his seven siblings were scattered into foster care and other arrangements. Still, the influence of his parents, who were steeped in the teachings of Marcus Garvey, cannot be overstated. They could not nurture Malcolm through childhood, but they steeled him with the truth: He owed white people nothing. Not deference, or trust, or gratitude for whatever comfort he might find in life. Malcolm’s character and beliefs changed over the years. Defiance of white supremacy was his essence.
Les Payne wrote “The Dead Are Arising” in part to correct the record in Malcolm X’s autobiography, as is evident in his treatment of Malcolm’s troubled adolescence. Malcolm’s time as a hustler is subject to debate. The historian Manning Marable’s award-winning biography, published in 2011, argues that Malcolm’s autobiography embellishes his early crimes to dramatize his later redemption. “The Dead Are Arising” does not directly engage Marable, but it refutes his interpretation and fills in gaps in Malcolm’s own account. Though he was rarely violent, Malcolm was embedded in a social network of thieves, drug dealers, racketeers and prostitutes as he split his late teenage years between Boston and New York City. His tragic and frequently despicable behavior marked him for early imprisonment, if not death.
Incarceration at 20 was the pivot of Malcolm’s life. He accepted the teachings of the Nation of Islam while behind bars, thanks to evangelizing correspondence from his brothers Philbert and Reginald. Upon his release, Malcolm dedicated himself to his new religion and its captivating and duplicitous leader, Elijah Muhammad. He quickly became the group’s most effective and recognizable spokesman, with fierce criticism of white America and a gospel of Black self-respect. Malcolm’s political celebrity and unapologetic approach ultimately turned the leadership of the Nation of Islam against him, and Muhammad gave the assassination order that led to Malcolm’s killing.
One possible criticism is that Payne does not provide an exhaustive account of Malcolm’s political philosophy. The book contains little analysis of Malcolm’s most celebrated speeches, debates or interviews. Instead, Payne most fully presents Malcolm’s ideas in contrast to those of both Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr.
This discussion unfolds in one of the book’s strongest sections, a retelling of a bizarre arranged meeting between Malcolm and the leadership of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta in 1961. Muhammad sent Malcolm and his colleague Jeremiah X to attend the meeting on behalf of the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm never forgave him. Payne puts readers in the room, and Malcolm’s disgust at being forced to negotiate with terrorists is palpable. But Payne also shows how enthralling it was to watch Malcolm improvise and argue. In this scene and others, we are exposed to Malcolm’s teachings within the rhythm of Payne’s masterly storytelling.
The portion of the book that may receive the most attention is Payne’s account of Malcolm’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. The details of the killing have never been totally clear, but Payne’s narrative is exacting. He spotlights key figures and examines the possible involvement of the F.B.I. and New York City police. But I found myself less intrigued by the loose ends of Malcolm’s assassination than devastated by the indignity and simplicity of the killing. Malcolm knew he was in danger and did little to protect himself. He had broken from the Nation of Islam, dedicated himself to Sunni Islam and begun experimenting with new tools for a global, human-rights-based movement for Black liberation. He was forceful, fine and weary, but not finished. And then three men rushed the stage, bullets ripped through Malcolm’s flesh and he bled to death on the floor. We lost him, again.
It is hard not to want Malcolm back, because his charisma is undeniable. His heroism grew from his courage, but also from his delight in his Blackness and his cause. Whenever I see footage of Malcolm, he seems on the verge of smiling, no matter how fiery his words or powerful his enemies. He can’t help laughing at white America’s hypocrisy, and mocking the calls to bargain with a government that wanted him silenced. There was an amused confidence that attracted his followers, along with his rhetorical genius and love for Black people.
But Malcolm’s power was more than embodied charm, and he need not rise from the dead. His diagnosis of calamity is enough to guide us. America has never been a nation of laws for Black people, he said. A country that is conditionally lawful is not lawful at all. It is weak, and will eventually be exposed, no matter how much wealth and military power it amasses. And in such a country, he wondered, what good is it for Black people to ask for trim legal solutions to police violence, electoral theft, segregation and poverty?
An epilogue to “The Dead Are Arising” comments briefly on Malcolm’s legacy, but it doesn’t take a Pulitzer Prize winner to see Malcolm’s inheritance in the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter isn’t asking for anything. Like Malcolm, it demands everything that Black people deserve, by any means necessary. It does not advocate violence, but will not abide the sick moral logic that condemns destruction of property as “too extreme” a response to the police shooting us in the back. And thanks to the leadership of Black women and Black L.G.B.T.Q. people, the imagination of the current movement is even more expansive than its predecessors in the mid-20th century. This is the promise they keep, and the idea that pushed Payne to write until death took the pen: We will exceed even Malcolm’s wildest dreams.
Michael P. Jeffries is the dean of academic affairs and a professor of American studies at Wellesley College. He is the author of three books on race and American culture.