On the shelf
The Dead Arise: The Life of Malcolm X.
By Les and Tamara Payne
Liver light: 640 pages, $ 35
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“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” published shortly after the 1965 black nationalist leader was assassinated, was both a literary classic and the basis of its posthumous public image. But that has changed in the 21st century. This month, for the second time in a decade, a new biography removes some myths to bring a more nuanced Malcolm closer to the public.
The latest book, as well as The Call of the Activist, has long been in the works. The project “The Dead Arise: The Life of Malcolm X” was started in 1990 by journalist Les Payne. After his death in 2018, the final changes were overseen by his daughter and lead researcher Tamara Payne.
Already a National Book Award finalist, the book will, of course, draw comparisons with Manning Marables 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.
Les Payne and Tamara Payne are co-authors of The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X.
(Liveright / J Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday)
Marable’s was the first major work that fully examined Malcolm’s life in the context of his era – and deviated sharply from the “autobiography”. The Payne book is similar in some ways, but Tamara Payne emphasizes the differences: “My father was a journalist and Marable was a historian, so they are different disciplines,” she says, which means that her book is more based on new interviews and less on new based interpretation. Her father started work after interviewing Malcolm’s brothers Philbert and Wilfred.
The perception of Malcolm changes with each generation: his death inspired radicalism in everyone from Martin Luther King to the Black Panther Party, even if he was excluded from the white mainstream. In the 90s, rap artist and Spike Lee reinvented him as a rebellious Che-style figurehead. 20 years later, he was Marable’s convincing but flawed messenger. And today, with the increasing white supremacy that Black Lives Matter is countering, Malcolm is returning as part of the movement’s big puzzle: where we go next.
Any attitude towards Malcolm, however, is measured by the image that Malcolm himself consciously created in his picture – one that he knew he might not experience again.
Malcolm X on July 9, 1964 before his departure for Egypt and Africa and the Conference of African Nations.
(Matty Zimmerman / Associated Press)
“[Malcolm] work with the media to create a public image, ”says Professor Jared Ball of Morgan State University. “He didn’t think he would survive and wanted the book to be something that would last.”
His attempt to reverse the narrative was an instant success, said Zaheer Ali, a scholar who was Marable’s lead researcher, in an email interview: “Media publications that disparaged Malcolm in unfriendly obituaries shortly after his death were enthusiastic Reviews in which they praised the book and invited re-evaluations of his life. “
However, there were complications. For starters, the book set its legacy in stone as its beliefs moved like sand. Originally a platform for the nation of Islam, the autobiography developed radically after Malcolm’s separation from the group – a shift that his writer, inclusion-oriented moderator Alex Haley, had exacerbated after Malcolm’s murder.
Against the wishes of his late partner, Haley made numerous changes. He edited a chapter called “The Negro” (recently published) that “would have given us a better sense of where Malcolm was going to lead the movement,” said Bill Fletcher, former President of the TransAfrica Forum. The chapter was written when Malcolm was still in the NOI. It preached self-determination and punished inclusive activists for allowing whites to dictate conditions for social success. It also urged blacks to take political action by voting as a bloc at a time when the NOI was publicly apolitical.
“With his murder, Malcolm lost control of what compromises he would have made in the end,” says Peniel Joseph, author of the new book “The Sword and Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King” Jr. “
And yet, as Ball says, “the autobiography, with all its flaws, remains the defining document.”
Science slowed down as Malcolm’s profile faded in the 1970s and 1980s, with the exception of Peter Goldman’s “The Death and Life of Malcolm X” in 1973, which Ali calls “a basic text”.
In the late 80s, hip-hop (especially Public Enemy) revived him in samples, and a new generation began buying Malcolm posters and wearing Malcolm shirts. But “they only revived part of Malcolm,” says Fletcher. “It was like science fiction where a person was brought back from the dead, but not exactly as he was before he died. They have details of Malcolm’s life and pictures rather than a coherent picture. “
Malcolm X speaks at a rally in Harlem on June 29, 1963.
Bruce Perry’s 1991 book “Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America” tried to fill the picture – refuting parts of the autobiography while sketching Malcolm as a tormented soul, drawn more from inner turmoil than real belief was driven. Perry conducted hundreds of interviews, but his book was attacked as a “hatchet job,” riddled with dubious claims about Malcolm’s alleged homosexuality and the idea that he set his own house on fire.
Other texts during this revival included a well-received book by Michael Eric Dyson and a PBS documentary, but Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” overshadowed them all.
The scholars I spoke to agreed that the film lacks nuance and severely affected Malcolm’s late political development, but most appreciate his visceral power to introduce Malcolm to new generations. Yet it wasn’t really a makeover; it was largely based on “The Autobiography”.
It took nearly two decades for Malcolm’s genesis to be fully reviewed. Marable’s extensive retelling – Ali says it was the first to use his travel diaries – repeatedly exposed the “autobiography” and shed new light on numerous incidents, including Malcolm’s murder.
Contemporary black academics like Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, and Cornel West advocated Marable’s interpretations. But radical activists attacked his version as too palatable. Jared Ball, who published “A Lie of Reinvention: Correction by Malcolm Mar by Manning Marable,” says the historian watered down Malcolm’s anti-capitalism and pan-Africanism. (Marable died days before his book was published.)
Even Fletcher, one of Marable’s closest friends, admits that the epilogue – imagining Malcolm’s future if he had lived – was a mistake. “Such speculations are fine with a Jack Daniel glass, but not particularly useful in a science book.”
Marable also made some brutal claims – that Malcolm slept with men for pay; that his separation from Elijah Muhammad stemmed from a love triangle; that both Malcolm and his wife, Betty Shabazz, had affairs, and that Malcolm had one with an 18-year-old girl the night before he died. Unsurprisingly, the true believers were angry and mostly dismissed this as unfounded tabloid gossip.
Denzel Washington starred in Spike Lee’s defining film “Malcolm X”.
(David Lee / Warner Bros.)
“Marable is a very complicated person with complicated relationships,” says Fletcher in his defense, pointing out that these entanglements had a huge impact. Shabazz may have slept with an undercover agent. The 18-year-old was, as Marable claimed, linked to Malcolm’s killers. Fletcher believes the love triangle explains “why he did things that were overly provocative and put himself in real danger”.
It is fair game if these statements are irrefutably true. But those claims were among the worst-sourced sections of the book, riddled with qualifiers. Some hints either have no clear or unreliable sources such as Louis Farrakhan, an enemy of Malcolm.
When asked for comment, editors Wendy Wolf and Kevin Doughten did not comment on accuracy or procurement. However, in an email statement they replied, “Manning was clear about the different views people have had about Malcolm for decades. He knew the backlash would come and welcomed it – he wrote with confidence in deep research and years of experience, and looked forward to the conversations. “
The Paynes book comes at a different time, in the midst of a new resurgence – as Black Lives Matter activists, who work alongside and outside of the white liberals, aim to keep up the pressure for substantial change. Malcolm is a main character in the Epix series “Godfather of Harlem” from 2019 and the upcoming film “One Night in Miami”. In addition to Joseph’s book on the Convergence of Malcolm and Martin Luther King, this year there was an acclaimed Netflix documentary series entitled “Who Killed Malcolm X”.
“The Dead Are Arising” offers only a partial correction to earlier work, a step-by-step twist in the long unfolding story of one of the most visible and confusing activists in history. Payne often revises or adds to the historical records, providing the most detailed new account of Malcolm’s early years. the clearest argument yet (with new sources) that Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, was killed in an accident rather than a racist murder; the revelation that Shorty (the friend Spike Lee played in the film) is actually a composite; a deep dive into Malcolm’s ill-advised meeting with the Ku Klux Klan; and fascinating details about the attack and its aftermath.
But the Paynes do not touch Malcolm’s intimacies or investigate his legacy. The book sometimes feels incomplete and leaves out crucial moments. Tamara Payne says she avoided speculation about sexuality, explicit corrections to previous work, and certain familiar stories for several reasons. “If you can’t be so specific about it, you don’t have it,” she says. “Besides, the book would otherwise be 1,000 pages … it’s already longer than my father wanted.”
Ultimately, the scientists agree that there is no definitive biography, especially as there is more information to discover and analyze. But they hope that Malcolm’s story and ideas will continue to take center stage in this new era of racial reckoning. “People should take the ‘autobiography’ and his speeches as a starting point,” says Payne, “and go from there.”