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.

Documentary offers an insider’s view of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff in Aspen ~ The Aspen Times

Issues at center of campaign captured in ‘Freak Power’ are relevant 50 years later

What: ‘Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb’

Where: Pre-orders freakpower.com; Amazon and other streaming services

When: Beginning Friday, Oct. 23

How much: $19.99

More info: The Aspen Art Museum will host an in-person screening of the film on Saturday, Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. The event is sold-out. Public festivities for “Freak Power Day” and a voter registration drive will begin at noon at the Pitkin County Courthouse and will run throughout the day downtown and at the Gonzo Gallery.

Coinciding with the public release of “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb” on Oct 23, the Aspen Times will publish a special 16-page insert reprinting the newspaper’s original contemporaneous coverage of Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for sheriff in 1970. Look for it on newsstands and at aspentimes.com

An old film canister labeled “Hunter Thompson for Sheriff” turned up in artist Travis Fulton’s barn off Ute Avenue in Aspen three years ago, setting off a series of archival discoveries that have shed new light on the gonzo journalist’s influential 1970 campaign and led to the new documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.”

The film, co-directed by Aspenites Ajax Phillips and Daniel Joseph Watkins, will be released to video-on-demand services, Oct. 23.

In all, the filmmakers found about seven hours of film footage shot during the campaign by Robert E. Fulton III. It had never been seen by the public — some of it never developed — and was spread between his archives in Aspen, New Jersey and Los Angeles.

“It’s been a treasure hunt,” Phillips said during a July 2019 editing session.

The revelatory footage — along with photographs by David Hiser and Bob Krueger — brings the viewer inside Thompson’s campaign headquarters at the Hotel Jerome, into the legendary debate between Thompson and incumbent Sheriff Carrol D. Whitmire and out to Thompson’s Owl Farm as threats of violence against him mount. It vividly captures the Nixon era scene on the streets as Thompson leads a youthful, peaceful revolution to get young hippies and “freaks” to vote and take control of local government.

“It seems to me the way to cope with power is not to ignore it but to get it,” Thompson says of his aims in the film.


The film opens with a scene of young Aspenites pouring into the Isis Theatre in downtown Aspen for the 1970 Thompson-Whitmire debate. On stage Whitmire claims not to understand what “freak power” is, while Thompson proudly brandishes the label.

“I am not at all embarrassed to be called a freak,” Thompson says. “To deviate from the style of government that I deplore today is not only wise but necessary.”

From there “Freak Power” is off and running, moving at a breakneck pace through Election Night.

A quick-cut montage sets the local and national scene of 1970 — war in Vietnam, assassinations, President Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, political violence from the Weathermen, racial inequality and activism, student protestors killed at Kent State. It’s cut against the dawn of the drop-out ski bum era in Aspen, when hippies fled cities for the Roaring Fork Valley and clashed with the conservative tourism industry establishment epitomized by Whitmire.

Thompson, radicalized by the police brutality he witnessed and fell victim to while covering the Democratic National Convention in 1968, sought to try a new kind of politics and law enforcement here in his backyard, in the hopes of inspiring national change — a voter-driven revolution that could be duplicated elsewhere around the U.S.

“What we’re trying to do is to make the vote work, to bring people back into the government,” Thompson’s campaign manager Ed Bastian says in archival footage.

Police harassment of hippies and “land rape” by developers were local signals of troubling national trends, Thompson notes.

“I don’t think we can afford to ignore the national political realities any longer,” he says.

“Freak Power” offers a play-by-play of the campaign as it happens from Thompson, Bastian and “minister of information” Alex Sweetman, explaining the Freak Power philosophy and strategy. The film also shows up close the campaign’s fear and paranoia as the opposition begins to play dirty, death threats roll in and the FBI starts spying on the Thompson campaign.

The film cogently explains Thompson’s flamboyant platform to change the name of Aspen to “Fat City,” sod the streets and ban traffic from downtown, control drug sales and forbid non-residents from hunting and fishing. But it also outlines the more serious and prescient reforms he pushed for, like disarming sheriff’s deputies and down-zoning construction to save the local landscape from development.

The film makes pointed use of footage from prominent Aspenites of the day who criticize Thompson, Mayor Eve Homeyer and the notorious anti-hippie restaurateur Guido Mayer among them. It also suggests that the population of Austrian and German immigrants who had helped found the ski resort here in the 1940s included former Nazis whose intolerance had pervaded local government and politics by 1970.

The issues at the center of the campaign, as captured in “Freak Power,” are shockingly relevant 50 years later. Scenes of voter suppression and post-Kent State protests are strikingly similar to those playing out today nationally during early voting and at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The viewer is often reminded of how little has changed, but also of how ahead of their time Thompson’s proposed solutions were, including police reform with oversight by an ombudsman, a “community policing” model that finally gained mainstream national traction this summer amid the nationwide protests over police brutality.

Here we see Thompson call for “preventative work” by police, arguing “unless you get at the cause you are never going to control the effect.”

People scoff in the film at Thompson’s drug decriminalization platform, but viewers will notice some of those proposals have became reality in the 21st century as well.

The film will help solidify Thompson’s legacy as a serious and wise political thinker. The man at the center of “Freak Power” is not the drug-gobbling cartoonish character of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” but a clear-eyed, committed and imaginative reformer (with, of course, a genius sense of humor and flair for political theater, showcased as Thompson shaves his head so he can call Whitmire “my long-haired opponent”).

“Freak Power” races to its conclusion with a gripping tick-tock of the rising tensions and many scandals of the campaign’s final days, including the arrival of an undercover federal agent who attempts to infiltrate the Thompson campaign and the specter of dynamite bombings against the Freak Power faithful.

“Having worked on the campaign, the movie brings out a lot of stuff even I did not know about, especially that paranoia,” former Sheriff Bob Braudis, a volunteer for Thompson in 1970 who went on to become a close friend and to implement many of Thompson’s ideas during his 24 years in office, said Wednesday.

Among the most stunning things in “Freak Power,” Watkins and Phillips noted, is the realization that the iconoclast Hunter Thompson was actually the candidate playing by all the rules in this race, the one using the legal tools of democracy as intended.

“If bombing is the last resort I’m not against it,” he says in the film. “The point is that we are not at that last resort. I don’t think we are anywhere near it.”

The film colorfully captures the heady scene inside the Hotel Jerome on election night, with costumed freaks expecting to usher in a new political era. It also depicts the heartbreak of young Aspen as Whitmire pulls away, winning by 500 votes.

“I made a mistake in thinking the town could handle an honest political campaign,” Thompson says in his concession, wrapped in an American flag and wearing a founding fathers’ wig, adding: “The American Dream really is f—ed.”


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Gogō-an, the cottage where Ryōkan lived from 1804 to 1816 

Unlike some Chinese and Japanese chroniclers who wrote accounts of their hermit huts, the celebrated Japanese poet and Zen monk Ryokan did not compose anything so specific. Ryokan was a poet, not a chronicler, but in his poetry, his hut is the setting and context of his life and practice. This is hardly a coincidence for the little hermitage is an obvious metaphor for life itself:

I sit quietly, listening to the falling leaves–
A lonely hut, a life of renunciation …


this hut of sticks,
flimsy as the world itself.

Ryokan was born in the cold and isolated Chigo (now Nigata) province in the village of Izumozaki. His father was well off, a merchant and the village elder, who passed on to his son a love of poetry. Ryokan’s quiet childhood included both literature and religion, and his reticent nature rebelled at the notion of succeeding his father in business and politics. He became a Buddhist monk at the local Zen temple, and left to train twelve years with a master, cultivating as well the study of Chinese poetry and calligraphy. After the death of his master, Ryokan traveled as a pilgrim for five years, returning to his native village after his father’s death, and settling himself in a nearby mountain hermitage. He was now forty. Ryokan remained twenty years, leaving reluctantly upon bad health, moving to quarters close to town. However, he always remained a hermit.

Ryokan called his hermitage Gogo-an. A gogo is half a sho, the amount of rice necessary for daily sustenance. The word an means hermitage. He saw the poverty of his hut as a projection of his own voluntary station.

Gogo-an is so non-descript that we must glean clues from Ryokan’s poems to learn about it. The process is further complicated by the stylized imagery Ryokan inevitably borrowed from Chinese models. But we should expect a simple hut in any case, and are not disappointed.

The location of the hut is ideal:

My hermitage lies in a forest all around me,
Everything is thick and green
no one finds this place,
Only those who have lost their way.

No news of the affairs of men
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.

A thousand peaks, ten thousand mountain streams
yet no signs of anyone.

The path to the hut is covered with thick weeds. From the foot of the mountain are “white peaks all around.” Ice, snow, and clouds [blended] together, such that winter isolates the hut both physically and visually. The village river nearby can be heard in summer, visible from a peak as it flows like “shimmering silk.” From somewhere near the source of the river tumbles a waterfall. A spring nearby provided Ryokan with fresh water. The rice fields of the villagers is not far.

Each season reveals the natural beauty of the landscape. In spring and summer the willows of Ryokan’s vegetable garden grow green, and water plants float in his pond. Ryokan can now witness “a thousand colors.” Chrysanthemums line the fence; wisteria and ivy border the path from the heights of the hut down to the mountainside. The house is surrounded by bamboo groves and sage covers the door.

There is a bamboo grove in front of my hut
Every day I see it a thousand times
yet never tire of it.

As autumn came, Ryokan grew reflective. He gathered more firewood, burned dried leaves in the hearth to economize, realized that his robe was covered with moss, and listened to the wind and rain.

If your hermitage is deep in the mountains
surely the moon, flowers, and maple trees [momji]
will become your friends.

Men of the world passing this way are few,
Dense grass conceals the door
All night in silence, a few woodchips burn slowly,
As I read the poems of the ancients.

With regard to the “poems of the ancients,” Ryokan explicitly mentions Kanzan, or Han-shan, the eccentric eighth-century Chinese hermit.

Listening to the evening rain in my hermitage
I have only the tranquility of the hermitage to offer.

This reflectiveness shows further Ryokan’s humaneness and potential for socialness. “It is on quiet fall evenings like these that he admits, “Now is the time I want to share my feelings, but there is no one.”

Several poems, addressing no one in particular, include the line, “Please come and visit” and Ryokan is honest in admitting the loneliness of his chosen life. But this is not only dispelled by his reassertion that “Truly, I love this life of seclusion,” but by the universal sentiment of the Boddhisattva: “When I think about the sadness of the people in this world, their sadness becomes mine. … O that my priest’s robe were wide enough to gather up all the suffering people in this floating world.”

Winter is inevitably harsh. The mountain path to the village became impassible, and Ryokan dependent upon his fixed stock of food. Sometimes the firewood was exhausted. Surely, he suffered hardships.

No flame in the lamp nor charcoal in the fireplace;
Lying in bed, listening to the sound of the freezing rain. …

Lying in my freezing hut, unable to sleep.

The hut itself Ryokan describes in one poem as a “three-mat hut,” but in another passage as “four-mat.” He refers to the same hut, not necessarily to the number of tatami mats as flooring but to the relative size of his “little grass hut,” what he sees as “little more than four bare walls.” We have already mentioned his one window. There is no apparent niche or divider; Ryokan speaks of “sitting along in my empty room.” On a wall several poems are written. On the bed and strewn on the floor are books of poetry. His possessions include one robe (probably two sewn as one but thin nevertheless), a walking stick, books. He employed a “solitary lamp” and a hearth that burned firewood or charcoal. Ryokan mentions a kettle and a rice steamer, plus his ubiquitous bowl. His food was procured from begging and he had a weakness for proffered sake. But guests could expect little more than “weak tea and thin soup.” Still, Ryokan wrote,

Don’t say my hut has nothing of offer
come and I will share with you 
the cool breeze that fills my window.

Of course, a guest should come only “if you are not averse to solitude.”

The hermit hut is for Ryokan a microcosm of life and the universe: “last year a foolish monk, this year no different.” It is the setting for the cycle of being which he so sensitively portrays in his poetry.

My life is like an old run-down hermitage–
poor, simple, quiet.

HOMAGE TO BASHŌ ~ The Atlantic



The butterfly dips
its wings in aroma of
violet wild orchid.

Red plums of summer,
first green figs, so many ears
of corn eaten raw.

Leaves that left the trees
are litter now on the ground
in orange and yellow.

No one on this road
but me: It must be autumn
in the dark country.

Comes the freeze, and rain
falls all through the night and soaks
the morning paper.

Winter blows its white
storms across the hills: Even
monkeys need raincoats.

The spring night vanished
while we talked among cherry
blossoms and petals.

John Steinbeck and biographer William Souder make a perfect pair ~ The Washington Post

There’s an old saying that great writing is simple but not easy, and so it is. The search for that one plain but inobvious word that will do the work of five, the agony of untangling a complex idea that has become a mass of phrases in the writer’s mind, the willingness to keep doing it over and over and over again until it is right — all of that plus some luck yields prose so clear that it seems a child could have written it.”

That’s William Souder writing about the author and conservationist Rachel Carson in his 2012 biography “On a Farther Shore.” It also nicely describes the work of biographer Souder himself: painstakingly researched, psychologically nuanced, unshowy, lucid.

He is drawn in subject to American originals whose lives are marked by great success, self-doubt, and an eerie capacity and need for solitude. A fascination with and absorption in nature characterize Carson and the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, the focus of Souder’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist “Under a Wild Sky.”AD

In his newest biography, the smart, soulful and panoramic “Mad at the World,” Souder has chosen a subject on the same continuum: John Steinbeck, another loner who, like Audubon and Carson, refined his craft through mature, dogged, self-punishing industry.

A key connecting thread between Souder’s last book and the current one is the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who was a literary model for Carson, a best friend and onetime co-author with Steinbeck, and the inspiration for the character Doc in Steinbeck’s 1945 novel “Cannery Row.” Steinbeck and Ricketts collaborated on “Sea of Cortez,” a 1941 chronicle — as hedonistic as scientific — of a voyage in the Gulf of California to collect marine specimens. One can easily imagine Souder deep into his research on Carson, becoming smitten with the Monterey mystique around Steinbeck and Ricketts, and happily awakening to his next subject.

Audubon struggled to capture some of the vast variation and abundance of American bird life. Carson sounded the alarm over the dire insecticide threat to that abundance. And Steinbeck spied a pattern that bridged nature and sociology. Assiduously trundling through the writer’s journals and letters, as well as his 33 books, Souder explains the particular importance of the “phalanx.”

“Steinbeck eventually came to believe that you could not understand humankind by looking at individuals — any more than you could interpret a human being’s behavior by looking at one of their cells,” Souder explains. “The answers were all in the phalanx, the superorganism, the group unit.” The phalanx, Steinbeck believed, is a repository of knowledge about all that humanity has endured, including, in his words, “destruction, war, migration, hatred, and fear.”

Tom Collins, director of the federal migrant camp at Arvin, Calif., known to its residents as Weedpatch. Steinbeck dedicated “The Grapes of Wrath,” in part, to Collins.
Tom Collins, director of the federal migrant camp at Arvin, Calif., known to its residents as Weedpatch. Steinbeck dedicated “The Grapes of Wrath,” in part, to Collins. (National Archives)

Souder delineates the centrality of that notion to Steinbeck’s storytelling. It is the magical ingredient that makes his characters gritty but also larger than life. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” after all, what are the Joad family and the greater migrant surge of Dust Bowl “Okies”? Phalanxes.

So, in a lighter vein, are the paisanos of “Tortilla Flat” (1935) and the bittersweet ragtag assortment of intellectuals, tradesmen, prostitutes and derelicts in “Cannery Row.” Steinbeck also describes what happens to those whom the societal phalanx rolls over, like the two hapless wanderers Lennie and George in the 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men.” Once Souder highlights the phalanx theme, in fact, a reader could become obsessed with it, charting it all the way to the corrupt Long Island suburbs of Steinbeck’s last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent” (1961).

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