The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (Hardcover)
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
Before dying in 2018, the late journalist Les Payne had worked for twenty eight years filling many of the historical gaps left by Alex Haley & Malcolm X in their co-effort in the ‘60s on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, itself one of the most essential books of the 20th century. Pulitzer Prize winner Payne died before finishing this project, leaving its completion to his capable, co-researcher/daughter, Tamara. Their work takes the reader much deeper into Malcolm X’s life and death than did The Autobiography and all other biographies of this monumental figure.
The title is neither a genuflection to the sometimes suffocating, modern day “woke-ness” tsunami, nor a birth-child of memories of the reprehensible history of wrongful deaths of American Blacks. Rather, “the dead are arising” was Malcolm X’s observation that Black Americans were dead until they became Black Muslims upon converting to the Nation of Islam. The situational irony is Malcolm’s own death in 1964 by assassination, which followed soon after his conversion from the Nation to orthodox Islam.
What this book has contributed to the already rich body of literature on Malcolm X is a panoptic understanding of the subject, based on the Paynes’ tireless research, drawn from hundreds of interviews of those who knew Malcolm best, including family members, and his parsing of exhaustive amounts of documentary sources, from court records to newspapers to academic texts. What Payne does not do is to attempt to sift all this information through the additional filter of Malcolm X’s fragmentary and often contradictory intellectual journey, an admirable task had it been undertaken but probably too challenging for one book alone.
The result of the Paynes’ efforts is an award-winning biography, which is a paean to the centrality of the role of family in Malcolm’s life, the relentless revelation of his surviving within the smothering context of persistent, environmental racism, and, lamentably, a full account of the savagery of his assassination. First, the effort is an admirable correction of the fact-record of The Autobiography, which had recorded a narrowly edited product (according to Haley) “that nothing was in The Autobiography that Malcolm did not want in the book and that anything Malcolm wanted in the book would be in the book”; and second, it is a necessary refocus of the historical record on Malcolm’s contextual life, and away from needlessly speculative and undocumented diversions on his sexual orientation and infidelities, which have clouded the authenticity and trenchancy of other biographies of his life.
However, despite the exhaustive coverage of Malcolm’s life and death notwithstanding, this book’s chosen scope does seriously limit its potential to inform desirable future paths towards achieving Malcolm’s goal of liberty and human equality for all (which was also Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and, coincidentally, James Baldwin’s goal). Consequently, the book has bequeathed a gaping vacuum to modern day agent provocateurs, who may wish fill the void by co-opting his image of activism to serve purposes other than those that Malcolm X intended. Beware, for his provocative image of clenched-fist defiance will be T-shirted ad nauseam. However, Malcolm X would not have enunciated many of the things the T-shirt wearers believe. Specifically, he would have neither countenanced abandonment of the nuclear family nor urged adoption of Marxist socialism as “necessary means” of achieving the legitimate goal of ultimate liberty and justice for Black Americans. Though his name may be tactically ill-appropriated by others’ fawning obsession for categorical condemnations of so-called “whiteness” or use of violence merely for violence sake, those do not represent a mature Malcolm X.
Rewriting Paynes’ outstanding book is not the goal of this review. However, this is a serious recommendation to any reader excited by the Malcolm X persona revealed by the Paynes, to supplement that excitement with exposure to Malcolm X’s eloquent speeches. Arguably, the most important took place in England on December 3, 1964, at the legendary Oxford Union debate hall, several weeks before his assassination. There, he defended the motion drawn from Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign program, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The speech is the centerpiece of Rutgers-historian Saladin Ambar’s magisterial Malcolm X at the Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (2014) covering Malcolm’s take on the nature of national identity; U.S. foreign policy in the developing world; racial politics in the U.S.; and the nature of power in the contemporary world.
Ambar describes Malcolm’s thoughtful deconstruction of how rights of self-defense, revolution, and self-determination are treated separately and differently through racial ideology and raciaiized media. He argues persuasively that the debate at Oxford “represented the most comprehensive, best articulated, and clearest sense of Malcolm’s personal and political vision on the larger judgments about the level of critique and expectation to which we subject Malcolm as an intellectual and activist.” Importantly, his book also details the year of Malcolm’s conversion to orthodox Islam and its impact on his intellectual development and racial objectivity.
Paynes’ and Ambar’s books are important works for today, because they got the story and importance of this man’s life right. Malcolm X knew that self-preservation is the first law of nature, and that categorical non-violence under all circumstances needlessly narrows an oppressed people’s options. He was moved by Hamlet: “taking arms against the sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” He was committed to Patrick Henry’s call, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
By gaining a deeper understanding of Malcolm X can one gain a joyful reset on the ‘woke’ spirit, which shook America out of its racial somnambulistic legacy of the ‘50s; it wasn’t just Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy of non-violent resistance, but also the spirit of Malcolm X as reflected in his famous speeches, two of which are listed by scholars among the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century: “The Message to the Grassroots,” December 10, 1963; and “The Ballot or the Bullet,” April 3, 1964; and two others of equal brilliance: “Formation of the Organization of the Afro-American Unity,” June 28,1964; and ”Not Just an American Problem, but a World Problem,” February16, 1965 (the neglected “Rochester Address,” delivered one week before his assassination). Poorly reported by the biased media of the era, these speeches are readily available on the Internet. They should be read today.
WINNER • 2021 PULITZER PRIZE IN BIOGRAPHY • WINNER — 2020 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTION • TIME Magazine — 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020 • A New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and Editors' Choice Selection • Best Books of 2020: NPR, Washington Post, Library Journal, Chicago Public Library • Excerpted in The New Yorker • Longlisted — Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction • Best Books of Fall 2020 — O, the Oprah Magazine, The Week, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
An epic biography of Malcolm X finally emerges, drawing on hundreds of hours of the author’s interviews, rewriting much of the known narrative.
Les Payne, the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, embarked in 1990 on a nearly thirty-year-long quest to interview anyone he could find who had actually known Malcolm X—all living siblings of the Malcolm Little family, classmates, street friends, cellmates, Nation of Islam figures, FBI moles and cops, and political leaders around the world. His goal was ambitious: to transform what would become over a hundred hours of interviews into an unprecedented portrait of Malcolm X, one that would separate fact from fiction.
The result is this historic biography that conjures a never-before-seen world of its protagonist, a work whose title is inspired by a phrase Malcolm X used when he saw his Hartford followers stir with purpose, as if the dead were truly arising, to overcome the obstacles of racism. Setting Malcolm’s life not only within the Nation of Islam but against the larger backdrop of American history, the book traces the life of one of the twentieth century’s most politically relevant figures “from street criminal to devoted moralist and revolutionary.”
In tracing Malcolm X’s life from his Nebraska birth in 1925 to his Harlem assassination in 1965, Payne provides searing vignettes culled from Malcolm’s Depression-era youth, describing the influence of his Garveyite parents: his father, Earl, a circuit-riding preacher who was run over by a street car in Lansing, Michigan, in 1929, and his mother, Louise, who continued to instill black pride in her children after Earl’s death. Filling each chapter with resonant drama, Payne follows Malcolm’s exploits as a petty criminal in Boston and Harlem in the 1930s and early 1940s to his religious awakening and conversion to the Nation of Islam in a Massachusetts penitentiary.
With a biographer’s unwavering determination, Payne corrects the historical record and delivers extraordinary revelations—from the unmasking of the mysterious NOI founder “Fard Muhammad,” who preceded Elijah Muhammad; to a hair-rising scene, conveyed in cinematic detail, of Malcolm and Minister Jeremiah X Shabazz’s 1961 clandestine meeting with the KKK; to a minute-by-minute account of Malcolm X’s murder at the Audubon Ballroom.
Introduced by Payne’s daughter and primary researcher, Tamara Payne, who, following her father’s death, heroically completed the biography, The Dead Are Arising is a penetrating and riveting work that affirms the centrality of Malcolm X to the African American freedom struggle.
About the Author
Les Payne (1941–2018) was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist. He served as an editor and columnist at Newsday and was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Tamara Payne acted as Les Payne’s principal researcher. She lives in New York.
The definitive biography of Malcolm X.... A book that contextualizes race in America prior to Malcolm's birth, takes an in-depth, nuanced, unflinching look at Malcolm's life, and then explores his death and its aftermath, all backed by 28 years of research.... An incredibly complete picture of Malcolm's life. More than a biography of a man, this is a narrative about a man that constantly places him in the contexts of his country, his family, and his inner world.... Payne uses historical events to offer readers a clear, unwavering look at the state of the nation.... The quality of the writing is superb and the book contains a wealth of gems that make the narrative unforgettable.... Les Payne was an outstanding researcher, and so is Tamara Payne, who worked to see this book finished after Les Payne's death. Malcolm X is still a powerful, influential figure, and getting this definitive biography, which sometimes corrects the historical record (and even corrects some dates and facts on Malcolm's autobiography) feels necessary and timely given today's racial unrest. In fact, this biography isn't just important; it should be required reading.
— Gabino Iglesias - NPR
Malcolm’s presence is beautifully rendered...Nobody has written a more poetic account...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.
— Michael P. Jeffries - New York Times Book Review
Fascinating and essential.... [Payne] adds invaluably to our understanding of Malcolm’s story.
— Mark Whitaker - Washington Post
Masterfully, [Payne] wove together the memories of friends, family, acquaintances, informants, and adversaries into a rich tapestry from which emerges the portrait of a complex individual working to make change in a society also full of contradictions. The book, which ultimately took more than three decades to produce, was completed after Payne’s 2018 death by his daughter and primary researcher, Tamara Payne, who also contributed the book’s introduction...[Payne's] meticulous recovery of Malcolm’s youth adds a new dimension to Malcolm’s less familiar 'origins story'....By giving a second life to a historical Malcolm, Les Payne’s timely biography illustrates something really important. It reminds us that those making history often do so by having the courage and conviction to act in spite of their limitations; their legacy can survive and continue to inspire even the deconstruction of the myths we build around them or the ones they construct themselves.
— Yohuru Williams - Boston Globe
Payne frequently revises or expands the historical record, offering the most detailed new account of Malcolm’s early years; the clearest argument yet (with new sources) that Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, died in an accident and not in a racist murder; the revelation that Shorty (the friend played by Spike Lee in the movie) is actually a composite; a deep dive into Malcolm’s ill-advised meeting with the Ku Klux Klan; and intriguing specifics on the assassination and its aftermath.
— Stuart Miller - Los Angeles Times
Masterful... The Dead Are Arising is a meticulously researched, compassionately rendered, and fiercely analytical examination of the radical revolutionary as a human being.
— Kerri Greenidge - The Atlantic
The Dead Are Arising, a new biography of Malcolm X, is timely. But perhaps this sobering book’s clearest message is that it will always be timely, because the story it narrates is timeless.... Les and Tamara Payne are especially good in detailing these early years of delinquency and rebirth. Like Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson, The Dead Are Arising delves deeply into the wider context of Malcolm’s world.... The book shows better than any previous biography the extent to which the NOI’s outlook was rooted in Marcus Garvey’s ‘Back to Africa’ movement of the 1920s.... Malcolm was uneasy about sitting down with white supremacists, but he’d been ordered to do so by ‘the Messenger’ Elijah Muhammad.... The encounter, covered in a riveting 63-page chapter that’s based on a wealth of new evidence, is the Paynes’ showstopper.
— Andrew Preston - The Spectator
The Dead Are Arising sets out to provide a much fuller picture of the life and death of Malcolm X, drawing on interviews with his friends and family to assess his contribution in the context of the times. The book is based on decades of painstaking research by Les Payne, who died before it was completed, and his daughter Tamara.... It is as much a history of US race relations as it is a biography of the black revolutionary.... The Dead Are Arising rightly sees Malcolm’s split from the cult-like Nation of Islam as inevitable, given the organisation’s reactionary political stances.
— Kehinde Andrews - The Guardian
[The Dead Are Arising is] the most lyrical and complete biography of this uniquely brilliant American ever written. This book is a great read, full of original insights about an elusive figure rendered deeply human.
— David Blight, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
Monumental. . . Payne’s richly detailed account is based on hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family members, childhood friends, cellmates, allies, and enemies, and meticulously tracks his journey from Omaha. . . to his emergence as the Nation of Islam’s ‘most gifted and successful proselytizer and demander of justice,’ and his assassination in 1965. Along the way, Payne folds in incisive portraits of [major] figures. . . An extraordinary and essential portrait of the man behind the icon.
— Library Journal, starred review
Comprehensive, timely life of the renowned activist and his circuitous rise to prominence. . . . Payne delivers considerable news not just in recounting unknown episodes of Malcolm’s early years, but also in reconstructing events during his time as a devotee of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad . . . Payne’s accounts of the consequences that rupture and Malcolm’s assassination at the hands of a ‘goon squad’ with ties to the FBI and CIA are eye-opening, and they add a new dimension to our understanding of Malcolm X’s last years. . . . A superb biography and an essential addition to the library of African American political engagement.
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Pulitzer winner Payne (1941–2018) spent nearly 30 years researching and writing this monumental biography of human rights activist Malcolm X. Completed by his daughter and researcher, Payne’s richly detailed account is based on hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family members, childhood friends, cellmates, allies, and enemies, and meticulously tracks his journey from Omaha, Neb., where he was born Malcolm Little in 1925, through his teenage pot dealing in East Lansing, Mich., and street criminal days in Boston and Harlem, to his emergence as the Nation of Islam’s “most gifted and successful proselytizer and demander of justice,” and his assassination in 1965. Along the way, Payne folds in incisive portraits of such major figures as Marcus Garvey, whose teachings on racial uplift Malcolm X’s parents followed; Moorish Science Temple leader Noble Drew Ali, whose follower, Fard Muhammad, founded the Nation of Islam; and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Payne also documents the radio dramas and jazz music Malcolm X listened to, reveals how a clandestine meeting with the Georgia Ku Klux Klan in 1961 contributed to his break from the Nation of Islam, and interviews two men wrongly imprisoned for his murder. The result is an extraordinary and essential portrait of the man behind the icon.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
Les Payne has written a biography of this African American icon that sets a new standard for investigative journalism.
— DeWayne Wickham, founding dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication
Monumental and absorbing... peers into the gaps left by Malcolm X’s autobiography, taking us more deeply into the intimate details of his life, work and death. In vivid detail, Payne retells the events leading up to Malcolm X’s assassination, offering fresh information about those involved. The Dead Are Arising is essential reading.... captur[ing] the vibrant voice of a revolutionary whose words resonate powerfully in our own times.
— Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage, starred review
Meticulously researched and masterfully reported, this chronicle offers fresh insights and disturbing revelations that, among other things, strengthen the case for government complicity in the murder of Malcolm X. . . . A gripping read . . . [and] a worthy companion to Malcolm’s famed autobiography.
— Nathan McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
The Dead Are Arising. . . will become the definitive biography of Malcolm X.
— Ray Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State
A brilliant and indispensable depiction of the life of Malcolm X. . . . Using the fruits of decades of interviews, [Payne] brings new information and perspectives on one of the most fascinating, and often misunderstood, figures in American history.
— Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Payne’s storytelling weave[s] an epic tale of Malcolm’s exuberant life, his tragic death, and the Phoenix-like legacy.
— Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Harlem Nocturne
The result of nearly three decades of investigative reporting, The Dead Are Arising is an essential new biography of one of the most compelling political figures of the twentieth century.
— Jill Lepore, author of These Truths
No one who wishes to reckon with the life of this man, one of the most important African American figures of the twentieth century can afford to forgo this account.
— Howard W. French, Columbia University