Book Reviews

Black America’s Tough-Minded Truth Teller

How an autobiography shaped the image of a civil rights icon

By Robert J. Norrell | October 26, 2020
Mural of Malcolm X in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Neil Gilmour/Flickr)
Mural of Malcolm X in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Neil Gilmour/Flickr)

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne; Liveright Publishing, 640 pp., $35

 So why did journalist Les Payne, who died in 2018, write The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X? An African-American born in Alabama, Payne migrated north early in life, volunteered for the army and served on a general’s staff, and by 1969, was a successful investigative reporter at Newsday. Reaching maturity in the late 1960s, he discovered The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), written in collaboration with freelance journalist Alex Haley, and reread it many times in the decades to come. Payne shared this absorption with millions of other African Americans of his generation—and, indeed, with millions of young whites who used the Autobiography as their window into inner-city life at a time when American cities were being damaged by rioting Black men. Many young people formed a romantic attachment to Malcolm, especially after his February 1965 assassination, as they lost faith in the efficacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” to elicit better conditions for Blacks in America. In the popular mind, Malcolm became the tough-minded truth teller to King’s soft lovingkindness.

At some point in the 1980s, a New York radio personality named Gil Noble offered to introduce Payne to Malcolm’s brothers Philbert and Wilfred Little (Malcolm’s birth name was Little), then living in Detroit. According to Payne’s daughter and collaborator, Tamara Payne, “after sitting down in Detroit with the two siblings,” her father was “shocked to realize how much he did not know about the man whom he had admired and studied … the fact that so much remained unknown about Malcolm proved irresistible.” By the time Payne died, he had completed a draft of The Dead Are Arising. Along the way, he had interviewed Malcolm’s family members, childhood friends, “buddies on the street and in prison,” cops, bodyguards, FBI agents, African revolutionaries, sworn enemies, and the two men falsely accused of shooting him. He came to believe that earlier accounts of Malcolm’s life—including the Autobiography—were either incomplete or inaccurate.

The Little brothers gave rich, new detail on the persecutions that Malcolm’s family endured from Ku Klux Klan terrorists in Nebraska and Michigan, including the murder of their father, Earl Little. They explained how state officials subsequently abused the Little family, driving their mother to mental illness. They described Malcolm’s emergence as a thief, hustler, and drug dealer. But they also analyzed his success as a recruiter for the Nation of Islam (NOI), which challenged the domination of the cult’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and resulted in the two men’s bitter alienation—and ultimately, in Malcolm’s death.

On that score, Payne goes into gripping detail about the numerous plots NOI operatives hatched to assassinate Malcolm before they finally succeeded. He demonstrates that two of the three men convicted of the murder were innocent. And having settled the questions about why and how Malcolm died, he brings the story to a close. The Dead Are Arising, which has been shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award, is a conventional account of a life. The book deftly describes the obstacles Malcolm overcame early in his life, his achievements as a race leader, and the many challenges put before him, including the final act of his assassination.

Why does a biographer choose a particular subject? In Payne’s case, he appears to have done what many, and perhaps most, biographers do: make a record of the life of a personal hero, someone they admire and want others to esteem. As such, his is a highly worthy effort.

But there can be other motives, including some that propelled earlier biographers of Malcolm. Alex Haley was, in effect, Malcolm’s first biographer. He “created” The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work on which Payne leans heavily, citing it more than any other source apart from his interviews with Malcolm’s brothers. Haley wrote every word of the Autobiography, did a massive amount of research including many hours of interviews with Malcolm himself, and created a narrative arc of his subject’s life. Although he shared many experiences with Payne, including professional development in the U.S. military, Haley differs in the attitude he took toward his subject. He was almost a generation older than Malcolm, “bourgeois” and Christian by his own description, and deeply skeptical of Malcolm’s hostility to standard American norms. In fact, the two men started out highly suspicious of one another. Haley’s motive for writing the book was the opportunity for celebrity authorship. And yet by 1969, The Autobiography of Malcolm X had become the most widely read work of nonfiction by an African American, more influential than the autobiographies of King, Booker Washington, or even Frederick Douglass.

In 2015, I published a biography of Haley. I wrote it because Haley had written the two most influential works of nonfiction in Black history, The Autobiography and, in 1976, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. There had been some dispute about whether Roots was in fact historical, as well as allegations that Haley had plagiarized much of it. As a result, the academic world in which I operated had consigned Haley to oblivion, ignoring him, even as millions of people read his books and believed them to be true. My goal was to correct the record, rehabilitate him from self-righteous academic dismissal, find out if he was guilty of the crimes alleged, and give him his due. Had he become my hero? No, I didn’t like a lot that I found out about him, and put most of it in the book, to the ire of Haley’s many admirers.

This pertains to The Dead Are Arising in so far as Payne concludes his book without considering the crucial importance to Malcolm’s legacy of the Autobiography, which I believe accounts for much of his enduring influence. Good biography pays close attention to contexts, which are in short supply in Payne’s book. His failure to explore Malcolm’s collaboration with Haley is, given the importance of that relationship, a serious omission.

Payne likewise neglects to take into account fully the existing literature on his subject’s life. In 2011, the historian Manning Marable published a voluminous biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. The book was controversial, accusing Malcolm of exaggerating his life of crime and engaging in a homosexual relationship. Critics alleged that Marable gave short shrift to Malcolm’s commitment to Pan-Africanism. None of the accusations were definitively established to be true, but they focused much attention on the Marable biography. Payne makes no mention of it, which further leaves the impression that he wrote in a vacuum.

Despite these shortcomings, in The Dead Are Arising, Payne has produced a well-written and deeply engaging biography of a uniquely American figure whose life offers a matchless window into our continuing national struggle over race.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus