In “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne focuses his sharp investigative lens on the life of an enigmatic American icon whose life and death continue to fascinate. In the resurgence of a national Black Lives Matter movement, motivated by police violence against Black and brown bodies, the title of the book is most appropriate; it was derived from a speech Malcolm X gave in Hartford. In the speech Malcolm encouraged those in attendance to challenge racial injustice with the spirit and vigor of those given a second chance at life. If Malcolm sought to frame his life in parables, it was with the intention of encouraging people not to sleep like the dead but stay woke in the pursuit of justice.
For many, Malcolm X’s 1965 autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, and Spike Lee’s dazzling 1992 biopic still largely frame his life. Both works continue to obscure the portrait of a historical Malcolm — one often strikingly at odds, as Payne’s work demonstrates, with the version the fiery Black Nationalist and Muslim minister painted of himself.
Perhaps more than any other source, the often-overlooked 1994 Steve Fayer and Orlando Bagwell documentary, “Malcolm X: Make It Plain,” explained this contradiction. It noted that Malcolm, in the great tradition of religious leaders, often “used his own life as a lesson for all Black Americans,” preaching about it “in fables and parables.” He later, the documentary further explained, “sought some control over how his life would be interpreted in the future” through his collaboration with Alex Haley on the autobiography.
Malcolm was assassinated shortly before the completion of the book. As Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A life of Reinvention” makes clear, Haley took additional liberties to finish the work, creating yet another layer of obfuscation.
Payne took on his work of historical excavation two years before the release of Lee’s film; he hoped to produce a volume that ultimately separated fact from fable and finally delivered a portrait of a historical Malcolm apart from the shadows of the autobiography. In addition to revisiting long lost primary sources, he began a massive effort in conducting oral research interviews. Masterfully, he 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.
While Payne claims to chart Malcolm’s journey “from street criminal to devoted moralist and revolutionary,” this really shortchanges what is the best part of the book. His meticulous recovery of Malcolm’s youth adds a new dimension to Malcom’s less familiar “origins story.”
Malcolm was born the seventh son of Earl and Louise Little, proud and independent Garveyites. Payne illustrates the struggles that beset the family as they eked out an existence in the upper Midwest during the Great Depression. They struggled with jealous neighbors, racial discrimination, and white terror.
Payne corrects the record regarding many of the claims made in the autobiography that continue to inform key details of Malcolm’s life and mission; for example, firmly putting to rest the notion that Malcolm X’s father, who was run over by a streetcar in Lansing, Mich., in 1929, was actually killed by the Ku Klux Klan. The story that the Muslim minister often shared was designed to reinforce his argument about the inherent brutality of white supremacy in America.
Even without the lynching, Payne illustrates how poverty and institutional racism came to inform Malcolm’s existence, ultimately resulting in the breakup of his family. Payne notes how Malcolm and his brother Philibert also “played a significant role in accelerating the family’s downward spiral” by pilfering from the clan’s meager reserves in the aftermath of his father’s death, rendering his mother increasingly unable to meet the family’s expenses in the waning years of the Depression.
To his credit, Payne spends less time musing over what we are to make of these contradictions and instead delivers a lucid narrative, with each chapter unlocking yet another window into the remarkable life of one of the most feared and misunderstood political figures of the 20th century. In the process the author manages to humanize without diminishing him.
Of particular interest to some will be Payne’s gripping account of Malcolm X’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom. Just this past February, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that his office would begin a preliminary review of the case after the premiere of a Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” The program raised serious questions about whether the wrong men were convicted of the crime, a position Payne’s biography strongly supports.
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.
THE DEAD ARE ARISING: The Life of Malcolm X
By Les Payne and Tamara Payne
Liveright, 640 pp., $35
Yohuru Williams is distinguished university chair, professor of history, and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven” (Blackwell, 2006) and “Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement” (Routledge, 2015).