The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

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Release Date: 
September 29, 2020
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The Dead Are Arising draws on decades of extensive and remarkably revealing interviews with a variety of noteworthy figures in Malcolm X’s life—both friends and enemies—to construct a portrait of the Black Power icon that’s suffused with fresh insight and revelatory details sure to make a reader’s hair stand on end.

An autobiography is never the last word on the life of its author, in part because autobiographies are usually written with a particular agenda in mind, and even more because a thoroughly researched biography can draw on so many other perspectives and records to provide context and other illuminating perspectives on that life. When an autobiography proves so pervasive that it towers over our perceptions of its author and amasses broader cultural cachet as a classic literary memoir, the biographer’s task can prove even more daunting.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is such a book. What’s more, as a drama of religious conversion, a manifesto for radical reconfiguration of racial identity and global political power, and a posthumous publication shaped in some indeterminate measure by a co-author who found himself captivated by his subject’s revolutionary vision but didn’t share his beliefs or goals, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as Told to Alex Haley) often applies more of a prism than a simple reflection to the historical record.

Three biographers have focused their efforts entirely on chronicling the life of Malcolm X and made significant contributions to our understanding of it. Peter Goldman’s The Death and Life of Malcolm X (1973) and Manning Marable’s A Life of Reinvention (2011) remain essential works today.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, the culmination of 30 years of voluminous interviewing and exhaustive research by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne, and the painstaking efforts of his daughter, Tamara Payne, to complete the work after her father’s 2018 death, arrives as the third indispensable work on the life of Malcolm X.

While The Dead Are Arising lacks the meticulous narrative structure and scholarly elegance of A Life of Reinvention, it never indulges in the sort of speculative sexual sideshow that has (in part) made Marable’s mostly brilliant biography so controversial. What’s more, The Dead Are Arising draws on decades of extensive and remarkably revealing interviews with a variety of noteworthy figures in Malcolm X’s life—both friends and enemies—to construct a portrait of the Black Power icon that’s suffused with fresh insight and revelatory details sure to make a reader’s hair stand on end.

The title refers to a phrase Malcolm X often used in reports to the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, on the accumulation of new converts in particular temples—a rising from the shame, deprivation, indignity, and ignorance of self-endemic to so-called Negro existence in America. Malcolm regarded every conversion of a Black person to Islam—including his own—as a journey from death to life.

The Dead Are Arising captures the arc of Malcolm X’s life familiar to readers of The Autobiography, Goldman and Marable, luminous dual intellectual biographies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King by James Cone and Peniel Joseph, and viewers of Spike Lee’s magnificent 1992 biopic. Payne recounts the activism and racially motivated murder of Malcolm’s father, Earl Little; his mother’s subsequent institutionalization and the breakup of the Little family; Malcolm’s brief if colorful career as a small-time criminal; his in-prison conversion; his meteoric rise as national spokesman of the Nation of Islam (NOI); his painful break with Elijah Muhammad and effective expulsion from the NOI; his re-emergence as a Sunni Muslim transformed by the Hajj and an icon of revolutionary Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism; and his brutal assassination, ostensibly at the hands of his former NOI brothers.

But more than any other writer before him, Payne draws on extensive interviews with Malcolm’s own brothers and sisters. These conversations open windows into the worlds of Malcolm’s Michigan and Boston youth, and his initial exposure and entry into the Nation of Islam that no previous biographer has accessed to this degree. Among other things, the contributions of Malcolm’s siblings to the book provide a new sense of the continuity of his parents’ Garveyite ethos in his thinking throughout his public life.

“Among a sea of compliant Negroes in the region, young Malcolm’s family stood out in bold relief. And the defiant Earl and Louise Little—as with Malcolm in years to come—would, despite a terrifying price extracted, continue to pursue the American ideals so flagrantly denied Black citizens,” Payne writes. “This early influence is generally underestimated by chroniclers who overlook Malcolm’s interaction with his parents, as well as with his siblings—most especially, Wilfred . . . Malcolm’s Autobiography also downplayed this early family influence for the sake of crediting the whole of his development to the spiritual leader he would encounter post-adolescence.”

Payne also discusses, to a degree not seen in other biographies, the family’s strategic efforts to engineer a religious awakening for their incarcerated brother, and the ongoing and evolving roles of the siblings in the NOI. Malcolm’s older half-sister Ella, in particular, receives a much more balanced treatment in The Dead Are Arising than she does in A Life of Reinvention.

Payne pays particular attention to the creation of the Hartford, Connecticut, NOI temple, the first that Malcolm built from the ground up. Payne describes how Malcolm identified a community receptive to the Nation’s teachings through the visits of a few Hartford Muslims to the Springfield, Massachusetts, temple, and how he worked closely with local people to spark and sustain the new Hartford temple’s growth.

Most readers of The Autobiography and other Malcolm X books are well familiar with Malcolm’s stunning track record of breathing new life into stagnant temples in New York, Detroit, and elsewhere with his electrifying preaching, tireless recruitment efforts, scrupulous behavior modeling, and imposed iron will. But the Hartford story recounted in The Dead Are Arising shows Malcolm in a more foundational role.

Critics of the Nation of Islam during Malcolm’s tenure sometimes described it as a “Negro Ku Klux Klan”—a parallel Black world of hateful, racist, segregationist rhetoric, and violence. And while almost no examples exist of the Nation practicing violence against anyone but its own members, it’s hard to deny that the NOI and the KKK shared one common interest: racial separation.

One of the more shameful chapters in the Nation’s history involves its real estate dealings with the Klan and its dalliance with American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell. Shortly before his death, in an attempt to expose Elijah Muhammad’s moral bankruptcy, Malcolm X spoke of a 1961 meeting with Klan members that he took at the Messenger’s insistence. Until now, the specifics of that interaction—omitted entirely from The Autobiography–have generally remained shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps the most eye-popping episode in The Dead Are Arising is a vivid, blow-by-blow account of Malcolm’s 1961 meeting with three Georgia Klansmen at the home of Atlanta Temple Minister Jeremiah X. Watching Malcolm navigate that encounter, at once pledged to strike a friendly, business-like tone by the Messenger’s specific directives, and equally steadfast in his refusal to honor the Klansmen’s unanticipated request for Malcolm’s assistance with their plan to assassinate Martin Luther King, is utterly spellbinding. The no-detail-spared, room-where-it-happened recollections of Jeremiah X and his wife, Elizabeth, would alone make The Dead Are Arising essential reading for anyone interested in Malcolm X or the NOI.

What’s more, Payne makes a cogent argument for this galling assignment as a catalyst for Malcolm’s growing disaffection with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation. “The flash point that likely irreversibly shattered Malcolm’s blind devotion to the Messenger was more broadly his Southern strategy, which flowed out of the meeting,” Payne writes. “While this pact promised Klan-approved safe passage for Jeremiah and other Muslims in the South, it also committed the NOI to secret cooperation with the death-dealing white knights—who, among their contemporary atrocities, had even openly proposed killing Martin Luther King Jr. The willingness of Elijah Muhammad to overlook the long, bloody history, as well as the mounting terror, of the Klan struck his national spokesman on a deeply personal level.”

The Dead Are Arising also provides unique perspective on Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination, supplied in part by Gene Roberts—not the white civil rights-era journalist and co-author of The Race Beat, but a Black New York City policeman who infiltrated Malcolm’s post-NOI organizations, Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, as a chief of security. Payne’s findings are roughly congruent with those conveyed in the recent Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X?—and in A Life of Reinvention, for that matter—but Roberts’ angle proves a particularly interesting take on the assassination, along with those of other witnesses who contribute to Payne’s striking reconstruction of the scene.

Roberts also provides the book’s most perplexing moment. At one point, Payne says that Roberts recalled driving Malcolm X to the airport in the summer of 1964 to fly to Atlanta for a private meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. No other account of Malcolm’s life (or King’s, for that matter) has ever made mention of such a meeting, or of any in-person direct contact beyond the two leaders’ chance encounter on March 26, 1964, while both were attending the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. It seems inconceivable that the FBI, devoting considerable resources to hounding both men throughout their public lives and with particular intensity in 1964, would have missed such a meeting. But Payne simply drops the hint, along with the presumption that Roberts shared whatever details he knew of the meeting with his NYPD handlers (details the agent apparently didn’t share with Payne in their interviews decades later), and moves on.

One common criticism of A Life of Reinvention concerns Marable’s portrayal of a passive Betty Shabazz and her miserable marriage to Malcolm X. Though Marable began working on his book well before her tragic 1997 death, he seems to have never interviewed her. (And because Marable died the day after A Life of Reinvention was published, he never had the opportunity to respond to critics of the book.) Apparently, Payne, who started work on The Dead Are Arising in the early ’90s, never sat down with Betty Shabazz, either. Malcolm’s widow is a virtual non-entity in The Dead Are Arising as well.

These criticisms aside, The Dead Are Arising’s strengths are legion. The book greatly expands our understanding of a revolutionary figure whose influence endures without parallel. With the fruits of his long and indefatigable pursuit of his subject everywhere in evidence, Payne paints a rich and powerful portrait of Malcolm X that proves deeply satisfying and thoroughly convincing.