JANUARY 18, 2021
THE DEAD ARE ARISING: The Life of Malcolm X arrives at a perfect moment in time. This past year of plague, protest, and pandemic has been, above all, a moment of racial and political reckoning on the idea of Black citizenship. Malcolm X’s defiant rhetoric against white supremacy made him appear to many to be the counterpart to Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence. He argued before global audiences that Black lives not only mattered but were central to building a world free of oppression.
Journalist Les Payne, who spent three decades researching this book before his untimely passing in 2018, has (with his daughter Tamara Payne, who completed the book after her father’s death) produced a pensive, lyrical, and finely wrought portrait of young Malcolm Little’s evolution into the icon known as Malcolm X. Payne’s interviews with Malcolm’s siblings, classmates, friends, and former Nation of Islam colleagues provide the most in-depth and personal examination of the forces that shaped his life to date.
The Dead Are Arising is, at its best, an origin story. Malcolm’s parents, Earl and Louise Norton Little, were activists, farmers, and Black nationalists whose support for the Jamaican organizer Marcus Garvey’s self-determination philosophy contoured the lives of Malcolm and his siblings. As pioneering disciples of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Littles scratched out a dignified existence in the Midwest, residing in predominantly white parts of Omaha, East Lansing, and Milwaukee that many Blacks dared not enter.
Earl Little, a mountain of a man prone to intermittent violent outbursts toward his wife and seven children (with the glaring exception of the light-skinned, red-haired Malcolm), cast a large shadow in life and a looming presence after his death in 1931. Payne’s biography shatters the myth that Earl Little was killed by white supremacists rather than a streetcar accident. His death sent the Little family adrift, a harrowing descent that Payne documents with richly detailed vignettes, culling new dimensions that push back against the hagiography of Alex Haley’s best-selling The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
In that account, Malcolm X is largely a passive observer of his mother’s mental decline and eventual placement in a psychiatric hospital. In reality, as Payne reveals, Malcolm’s drift toward delinquency, which started as early as 12, helped to accelerate Louise and the Little family’s demise. While his hardworking older brother Wilfred worked to assist Louise in taking care of the household, Malcolm and his brother Philbert stole money from their mother. Intellectually precocious but stymied by the mistreatment of teachers and even well-meaning white classmates, young Malcolm let his charisma and recklessness play out on the streets of East Lansing. He studiously defied Jim Crow Midwestern values, whether that meant holding hands with white girlfriends or expressing professional ambitions that transcended the menial labor relegated to Depression-era Negroes.
Nicknamed “East Lansing Red” (which would be changed to “Detroit Red” for his autobiography), Malcolm arrived in Boston in 1940 to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little-Collins. In contrast to previous treatments of his sister’s influence on his criminal pursuits, Payne characterizes Malcolm as a seasoned initiate in the hustler’s life, one whose time in Boston and Harlem over next five years were even more lurid than recounted in the autobiography.
In this sense, The Dead Are Arising challenges interpretive aspects of Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. That book drew the ire of some Malcolm X scholars and activists for its suggestion that Malcolm may have engaged in homosexual activity as a young hustler and for its examination of his sometimes painful marriage to Betty Shabazz.
Payne’s contrasting style elicits great benefits when discussing The Nation of Islam (NOI) in comparison to largely white religious groups, such as Mormons, whose teachings, beliefs, and contradictions were, at the time, more readily accepted than the NOI’s were.
Malcolm’s entrance into the NOI while serving an eight- to 10-year sentence for robbery and gun possession is a family affair. His brothers introduced him to the group via correspondence, and he found the sect’s pro-Black religious narratives similar to the Garvey movement’s celebration of dignity that marked some of his most satisfying childhood memories. Imprisoned for 76 months in three different Massachusetts correctional facilities, Malcolm spent that time honing already formidable reading, writing, and debating skills. “His verbal dexterity, long a staple of Malcolm’s […] street rap, would be upgraded with metaphors, similes, and poetry into a veritable dynamo of persuasion,” observes Payne.
Payne’s biography reaches its peak with an extraordinary chapter detailing Malcolm’s successful efforts to build an NOI mosque in Hartford, Connecticut. Payne places us in the living rooms where Malcolm preached, debated, listened, and converted initially skeptical Black folk to join the Nation. Those who didn’t came away impressed by this passionate young preacher who, despite his subservience to “Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” proved himself to be a natural leader, brilliant orator, and an effective grassroots organizer.
The Dead Are Arising does not smooth away Malcolm’s rough edges. His competitive juices, which elicited admiration, envy, and anger before his religious conversion, continued long after. He turned Hartford into an organizing success in part to prove a point to the Messenger (as Muhammad’s followers called him). His need for recognition made him a star attraction but also garnered suspicion and doubt among an older generation of NOI members and leaders, including Elijah Muhammad himself. Malcolm’s 1956 letter to Muhammad explaining that the “dead are arising” referred to Negroes who were converting to the NOI and discovering their Blackness.
Public recognition would come at a high cost. The NOI’s efforts at forging a rapprochement with the Klan in a secret 1961 meeting proved too much personally and politically. Malcolm chafed against Elijah Muhammad’s order to negotiate a nonaggression pact with white supremacists, an initiative the group would continue to pursue without Malcolm.
The Dead Are Arising falters in grappling with Malcolm’s political thought and activism. His relationship to Martin Luther King Jr. and the larger Black freedom struggle requires more historical analysis. At times it feels as though the book is galloping toward its conclusion just as readers grow accustomed to the intimate pace that has been set up during its first three quarters. I longed for a more historically contextualized analysis of Malcolm’s evolving views on Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and socialism. Malcolm’s relationship with Harlem leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell and Black radicals is also undernourished.
While Payne’s depiction of Malcolm’s assassination is punctuated by details gleaned from people who were there, the book’s most powerful moments take place when its subject is alive. This biography of Malcolm, revelatory in so many ways, views the icon from the inside out. The Dead Are Arising brilliantly crafts a new origin story of the most important working-class Black leader ever produced. By reinvestigating the story that Malcolm wanted the world to believe and exposing his elisions, mistakes, and contradictions, Les and Tamara Payne have produced an exceedingly valuable and important biography that adds immeasurably to our understanding of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X projected a vision of strength that proved attractive to generations of Blacks around the world combating white supremacy. The Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe last year and continue into 2021 owe much of their force to Malcolm’s still-resonant critique of the panoramic nature of racial oppression and his efforts to transform civil rights struggles into a global human rights movement. The Dead Are Arising reminds us that ultimately Malcolm X’s personal vulnerability shaped his political strength.
Peniel E. Joseph holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author, most recently, of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.