Yes, this is an interesting biography to finish off in the middle of a racist/treasonous coup attempt, but there you go. And since Spike Lee and Denzel’s bio-pic hagiography on the same subject is still worth watching, I thought I’d review it here.
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Les Payne spent decades tracking down and interviewing friends, relatives and colleagues of Malcolm X. He wanted to basically fact check “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” dictated by Malcolm and turned into prose by Alec Haley. Whatever Malcolm’s reputation for unflinching truth telling, Haley was quite the yarn spinner and never above passing off fiction as fact. So it was a righteous project.
Payne never finished the book, but after his death, his daughter Tamara — who’d done some of the research and fact-checking along the way — undertook the task as a tribute to her father. The result is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes hero-worshipping (of her Dad and Malcolm) and overall impressive piece of scholarship that in many ways, moves beyond the self-manufactured myth.
The structure of the book is heavy on context and highlighted by some serious new scholarship. It may take a while to get to Malcolm Little, who grew up in Omaha and Michigan in the lynching-happy 1930s and ’40s, but the context provided is important.
We’re treated to sketches of the America that Malcolm was born into, the early lives of his parents and their deep involvement with Black separatist Marcus Garvey’s organization in the years right after World War I. That’s important, considering the Black self-help “cult” (their words) Malcolm was drawn into while in a Massachusetts prison, encouraged in this direction by his siblings, some of whom had fallen in with the ever-evolving Nation of Islam back in Michigan.
The charismatic leaders of assorted Black sects of an Islamic bent are profiled, those which fell by the wayside and one — a New Zealand white man passing himself off as Black who founded the movement that morphed into the Nation of Islam — later led by an uneducated, soft-spoken manipulator/operator from Georgia who came to call himself The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm Little, renamed Malcolm X, became the Nation’s most riveting speaker and best recruiter, and eventually came to be seen as a threat within the organization, which led to his murder in the mid-60s.
The Paynes correct the record of Malcolm’s youth, digging deep into an adolescence and early adulthood which Malcolm, for all his ownership of past evils, sugar-coated in the “Autobiography.” He told audiences his father was murdered by racists, but he died in a tram accident, everyone else in his family agreeing with what they saw and the way the dismemberment was covered in police reports and local newspapers at the time.
With his widowed West Indian mother struggling to feed a large family in the couple of years that followed, Malcolm and an equally guilty sibling shamelessly robbed her blind They were stealing the money meant to feed them all and keep a roof over their heads, money sent by his oldest brother who found decent-paying work back East, money two teen brothers blew on cigarettes and marijuana and the pleasures of Mason, Michigan. Their mother went insane under the strain, the family was broken up and that’s all on Malcolm.
He tried to pimp out a brother’s ex-wife, used women so awfully that some ended up broken, addicted and in prostitution. And then he fell in with a cult, given to chanting “gibberish” prayers in faux Arabic to Mecca five times a day and preaching racial separation.
The big piece of reporting here is an extensively reconstructed secret meeting that took place in Atlanta between Malcolm and the KKK, which saw common ground in the NOI’s “separate the races” ethos, and distrust of “the Jews.” Malcolm’s agenda, to reject this cooperation, was brushed aside by the naive Elijah Muhammad, and was the first indication that their rift would grow and be permanent.
That long, almost pointlessly-detailed chapter hijacks the book, and everything that comes afterward suggests one needs to read or re-read the “Autobiography” to feel fully filled in on what they Paynes dash through. Perhaps Les Payne was rushing to get it wrapped up. A first reference to Malcolm’s connection to Muhammad Ali indicates earlier references that were omitted, and things like that mar the slapdash last third of the already-labored “The Dead are Arising.”
But if you’ve seen Spike’s epic and want a taste of the boy who became the man the movie star played with such grace, force and righteousness, “Arising” is well worth picking up.
“The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. 612 pages inc. index, LiveRight Press. $35.