THE DEAD ARE RISING: The Life of Malcolm X by Les and Tamara Payne (Liveright, 612 pp., $35)
When the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X by Columbia University historian Manning Marable was published in 2011, few in the publishing world knew that another well-known Black writer, Newsday editor and columnist Les Payne, had been at work for more than two decades on his own book on the iconic black-nationalist leader.
For years, a neighbor had watched Payne surround the barber chair he kept in the upstairs office of his Harlem brownstone with reams of research materials and notes from in-depth interviews with more than 50 of Malcolm's family members and close associates. When the friend asked what Payne thought about being scooped by Marable's book, Payne was unfazed. "There are thousands of books about Abraham Lincoln!" he laughed, noting the unquenchable thirst for biographies about the great white men of American history. As the neighbor put it, Payne "was unwavering in his devotion to the topic. He lived Malcolm's life pretty much every day."
Tragically, Payne died of a heart attack in 2018, before he finished a final draft. His daughter Tamara Payne, who served as his research assistant and shares a co-author credit, completed the task with the help of their editor, Robert Weil of Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton. While fascinating and essential, "The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X" is thus less a formal portrait and more an Impressionist mosaic made up of the strongest fragments of Payne's reporting.
Payne's is very much a journalist's book, focused on clearing up factual disputes and re-creating fly-on-the-wall details, and he adds invaluably to our understanding of Malcolm's story at several key junctures in his life. The first is the devastating impact of his father's sudden death in 1931 at the age of 41. Earl Little was a carpenter and itinerant preacher who became a follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey and took an impressionable 5-year-old Malcolm on proselytizing trips for Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. After Earl was run over by a streetcar one night near the hardscrabble family farm in Lansing, Michigan, young Malcolm became convinced that it had been a racist ambush, and he channeled his grief into a righteous fury at white people.
One big revelation is about a secret meeting that Malcolm had in early 1961 with members of the Ku Klux Klan, after he became the top lieutenant to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Because both groups favored separation of the races, the eccentric "Messenger of Allah" became fixated on the idea that the Klan might help the Nation of Islam secure a large plot of land in his native Georgia to serve as an all-Black colony. But when Muhammad instructed Malcolm and an Atlanta-based disciple named Jeremiah X to meet with local Klan leaders, the Klansmen were more interested in enlisting the Black Muslims in a joint plot to kill the man they referred to as "Martin Luther Coon." Re-creating the two-hour kitchen table meeting in vivid detail based on interviews with Jeremiah X, Payne concludes that the episode left Malcolm deeply ashamed and served as a "crowbar" that began to pry him loose from his fanatical devotion to "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad."
More than 50 pages are devoted to the events surrounding Malcolm's assassination in February 1965, while he was giving a Sunday afternoon speech at the Audubon Ballroom north of Harlem, and the account is gripping. Before their deaths in the 1990s, both Jeremiah X and another ex-Nation of Islam official, named Captain Joseph, personally confirmed to Payne that the order to inflict "terminal bodily harm" on Malcolm came directly from Muhammad's headquarters in Chicago.
Payne concludes that the hit was carried out not by two members of the Harlem mosque, who were convicted and went to prison for two decades each, but by three members of a "goon squad" from the Newark mosque. They were led by a hardened ex-Green Beret named William 25X Bradley, who rushed the stage and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun in front of his wife, Betty, and four young daughters. Drawing on an anonymous source he refers to as "Talib" and others from the Newark mosque, Payne provides a cinematic account of the murder.
What's missing from the book is some personal confession that would have explained Payne's lifelong obsession with Malcolm X and elevated the narrative voice of this book another notch. It would have also driven home to readers what made Malcolm so beloved by Black Americans of his era and why he hovers over the Black Lives Matter movement today: his power not to change public laws or policies, but to challenge the psychology of racial inferiority and to demand not just equal rights but equal dignity.