“The Dead Are Rising: The Life of Malcolm X’’ by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Liveright Publishing Company. 612 pages. $35.
BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
In 1960, Malcolm X, the leading organizer and spokesman for the Nation of Islam, told a reporter that Blacks must no longer depend on changing the minds of White people.
“We have to change our minds about ourselves through moral reformation, a knowledge of self…”
The White man has brainwashed our people into believing in White supremacy so much they don’t think they’re making progress unless they’re living in a White man’s neighborhood,” Malcolm said, “have a seat in the White man’s school; or a position in the White man’s job; they even go so far that they think they’re not successful in life unless they have a White woman for a wife.”
“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair,” subsequently Malcolm asked a Black crowd. “The color of your skin, the shape of your nose and lips?”
“Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to?”
Convinced that all Whites are “devils,” Malcolm emphasized that Blacks had a right to defend themselves, their families, and their religion against all comers.
“If someone puts his hands on you send him to the cemetery.”
An in-depth look
By the middle 1960s, Malcolm X was a force to be reckoned with, inside the Nation of Islam and as a critic of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.
In “The Dead Are Arising,” Les Payne, an investigative journalist and editor at Newsday, and Tamara Payne, (principal researcher for the book, who completed it when her father
died in 2018), draw on dozens of interviews with siblings, friends, Nation of Islam members, and an undercover NYPD cop, to provide an engaging and informative chronicle of the extraordinary life and death of Malcolm X.
Malcolm Little’s childhood in Lansing, Michigan, the authors reveal, was disrupted when his father (a preacher, laborer, and recruiter for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” Universal Negro Improvement Association) was killed by a streetcar; and his mother was committed to a mental institution.
A ward of the state, Malcolm drifted from home to home, before striking out on his own as
s drug dealer and pimp. Convicted of armed robbery in 1946, he spent six years in prison, reading voraciously and, following recommendations by an inmate and his brothers, learning about the Nation of Islam.
Soon after his release, Malcolm became a recruiter for the NOI, came to the attention of the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, and rose rapidly through the ranks.
Malcolm became disillusioned with The Messenger, the authors maintain, when he discovered Elijah’s willingness to cooperate with the Ku Klux Klan, whose help he sought to acquire land to establish a separate country for the NOI.
His eyes were opened as well when he found out about Elijah’s sexual relationships with young women in the Nation, with whom he had fathered children. And when he began to doubt NOI teaching about miscegenation; the contention that one man, Fard Muhammed, was Allah, and another man, Elijah Muhammed, was his Messenger; and claims that all White people were devils.The Paynes seem less inclined to attribute Malcolm’s disillusionment to his ambition to displace Elijah.
After Malcolm insisted in a speech in Manhattan that the assassination of President Kennedy was an instance “of chickens coming home to roost,” he was suspended, and left the Nation of Islam.
Left wanting more
The authors then supply fascinating details about Malcolm’s murderers – and why they have never been brought to justice.
The Appendix to “The Dead Are Arising” includes the claim of S.S. Mufassir that “More than any other man, the Muslim Malcolm X had a revolutionary impact on contemporary American culture.”
Unfortunately, given Les and Tamara Payne’s’ extraordinary knowledge of their subject and their powerful and poignant portrait of a mid-twentieth century icon, their biography concludes without adequately addressing Malcolm’s legacy.
We are left wanting to know more about Malcolm’s evolving views of the relationship between Black nationalism, civil rights and human rights; how they differ from the views of his civil rights and Black Power contemporaries; whether his religious, social and political strategies are likely to produce racial justice; and whether Malcolm can help Americans identify something bigger than ourselves, move “beyond the darkness” and fundamentally change the world in which we live.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.