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.
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