An incomplete new biography of the polarizing civil-rights leader
Now seems like an appropriate time to revisit some of the landmark figures of America’s most recent Civil Rights history, and none are as divisive or polarizing than the man who died in a hail of bullets fifty-five years ago in Harlem. Malcolm X lived a life of constant reinvention, and his “Autobiography” continues to be a must-read in American literature. But the man himself obfuscated and changed some aspects of his life for literary consumption, which means that there’s no end to biographies by others to correct the record and capture the man in full. A new book tries to do so, with mixed results.
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X is thirty years in the making, its late author Les Payne beginning the project in 1990 and his daughter Tamara continuing the work after his death in 2018. In many ways, this is less an exhaustive recounting of Malcolm’s life than a breakdown of certain scenes in his life that show in miniature his impact in the larger scheme of American society and racial struggles. Les Payne believed (asstated in his daughter’s introduction) that someone’s early life, especially in terms of their family and relationships with those around them, can illuminate much of what follows in their story. In that sense, the most cohesive part of the book focuses on Malcolm’s early years, long before Elijah Muhammad or the Black Muslim movement recruited him.
Readers familiar with Malcolm’s book will know all about his early days as the son of a preacher inspired by Marcus Garvey to preach Black self-reliance in a world where integration and even subjugation were the preferred methods of Black leaders to conduct themselves in a white-dominated United States. Earl Little (Malcolm’s father) met a tragic end when Malcolm was five, and the son long believed that his father was a victim of Klan violence.
Malcolm began to stray from the educational path his mother long wanted him to pursue, as her own mental breakdown and the stress of raising a family at the height of the Great Depression meant that she couldn’t enforce her rules. He eventually made his way to New York during the Second World War, where he became a denizen of Harlem’s criminal underbelly and eventually went to jail for being part of a burglary ring. His life turned around in prison, when he encountered the teachings of the Nation of Islam, and he emerged as one of the most powerful spokesmen for Elijah Muhammad’s racially-charged manipulation of orthodox Islam.
Payne goes over this territory exhaustively, so much so that in many ways the rest of the book suffers by comparison. He gives so much attention to Malcolm’s youth that he denies sufficient attention his actual ministry in the NOI. Nor does he fully address Malcolm’s X eventual split with the group, when he realized that Muhammad was using his position to have sex with, and then deny the children he had with, young women he employed as “secretaries”.
But Payne does highlight, in two extensive and revealing chapters, how Malcolm was instrumental in helping start a mosque in the most unlikely of places (Hartford, Connecticut) and how Elijah Muhammad forced him to conduct a meeting with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in a misguided effort to join forces with the hate group. The Klan meeting wouldn’t be a revelation to anyone familiar with Manning Marable’s excellent biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which also came out after its author’s death, in 2011. Perhaps the biggest headlines from this book concern the author’s unmasking of the NOI’s founder, Wallace Fard, as a white man from New Zealand able to pass himself off as a “Black messiah,” and the revelation that an undercover NYPD cop was able to infiltrate Malcolm’s security detail and passed along information about his upcoming assassination that the NYPD and FBI ignored.
Ultimately, this new book serves to help put Malcolm’s life back in the conversation we’re all having about race and progress (or the lack thereof) in the year 2020. As the most recent publication to deal with Malcolm’s legacy, it deserves a place on many bookshelves in America. Still, this isn’t the “definitive life” that the publicity on the back states it to be. It’s a good breakdown of why Malcolm came to the Nation of Islam from prison, and it does show where he was going when bullets from NOI gunmen (only one of whom ever did time for the murder) struck him down at the age of thirty-nine.
Readers looking for a definitive look at the man who reflected so much of America’s pain and anger over race would be best served by seeking out Marable’s book as well, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, of course. Malcolm X is a figure worthy of consideration at this time, and this book does help further the conversation on his legacy. But it’s by no means the last word.
(Liveright, October 20, 2020)