Since the global protests for Black Lives Matter gained momentum last summer, activists have continued to gather to protest police and state violence against Black people. At rallies all over the country and world, there have been signs with quotations and faces of civil rights leaders, including that of Malcolm X. The late leader and his insistence to defend Black lives—“by any means necessary”—received critiques in his own lifetime that echo today through critics of the Black Lives Matter movement: that he was too radical, did not give proper deference to authority, and that he was not the “right” kind of religious leader to champion these social justice movements.
Into this climate came the release of The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, written by the late journalist Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne, which quickly appeared on award lists and won the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction. It also received deserved praise from the African American Intellectual History Society’s authors, who named it one of the twenty best books on African American history published in 2020. Based upon hundreds of interviews conducted by Les Payne and finished after his 2018 death by his daughter, Tamara, The Dead are Arising may be the best Malcolm X biography yet. It represents an outstanding contribution to American history, Malcolm X’s biographies, and the history of Black freedom movements. Previous biographical treatments have placed Malcolm X within broader American religious structures—such as Louis DeCaro’s On the Side of My People—or within the transnational Black American radical milieu in the mid-twentieth century—most notably Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Payne, a journalist rather than an academic historian, concerns himself more with who Malcolm was and how that affected his relationship to the Black freedom movements. The Dead are Arising is the most complete look at Malcolm X’s personality and family relationships out of any other biography—a compassionate, riveting examination of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest revolutionary thinkers.
However, even as The Dead are Arising succeeds at portraying Malcolm as he adapted to survive through various periods of his life, Payne’s account struggles to capture the Nation of Islam’s place in Minister Malcolm’s life and politics. In its pages, Malcolm is not the “right” kind of religious until he leaves the Nation of Islam for Sunni Islam. For instance, in rightly describing why scholars must be skeptical of Malcolm’s Autobiography as a pristine source, Payne also describes the book as being “as jolting as that of a cult member undergoing the early shocks of deprogramming.” Payne uses terms like “cult” and “mystic” throughout his book to describe the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. These terms question the Nation of Islam’s legitimacy as a religious movement worthy of serious inquiry. Casting aspersions on whether the Nation of Islam is a religion—or merely a “cult” brainwashing its followers—undercuts Malcolm’s motivations and the actions he undertook for the organization for more than a decade. It also separates Malcolm’s thought process and intellectual maturity away from the Nation of Islam, the organization that made him an international spokesman for Black liberation.
The religious studies scholar Kathryn Lofton has written that some historians, especially those who are not specialists in religious studies, experience discomfort with assigning “reason” or “logic” to religious actors in history—a critique that can also apply to biographers like Payne. Scholars who define religion as “illogical,” and work to bracket or suspend religious belief as wholly separate from politics, inadvertently suggest that religion can never be a “site of reasoned thought,” as opposed to politics, economics, or other categories. Accordingly, many U.S. historians “are overconfident in their own understanding about how religion operates, and [oversimplify] its operational power in history,” Lofton writes. Authors, to their detriment, downplay religious influences in political matters that don’t harmonize with accepted narratives, like the notion that Black people of faith only supported integration or non-violence. This discomfort with religion’s influence on political power and appeal does not surprise. However, it does reveal how historians and biographers artificially separate political and religious motivations in their subjects if they do not match mainstream views. Organizations like the Nation of Islam and its adherents’ commitment to separation rather than integration don’t fit the mold—and thus are too often dismissed as illogical “cults,” unworthy of serious inquiry or unfit to be the basis for foundational religious and political beliefs.
THE DEAD ARE ARISING REVEALS more of the life of young Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) than any previous biography. Les Payne, a Pulitzer-prize willing writer and longtime editor and columnist for Newsday, interviewed Malcolm’s brothers Wilfred and Philbert, along with other important figures who had never before offered scholars or journalists unfettered insight into their family’s personal lives. Their father, Earl Little, and their mother, Louise Little, were proud followers of Marcus Garvey, the founder and leader of the United Negro Improvement Association, which stressed economic self-reliance and Black pride. Earl took his young family across the Midwest, including stops in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan, spreading Garvey’s message to the Great Migration’s first and second-generation migrants. White supremacists blocked his efforts and threatened to kill Malcolm’s father before ultimately burning down the family home in 1927. Earl Little eventually died in a tragic accident while sharing Garveyism in a majority-white town in Lansing, Michigan, to barely interested Black migrants (Malcolm always believed white supremacists had murdered his father). Wilfred shared with Payne nuggets he remembered from the aftermath, including the police visiting the family to tell them of the accident, how the family fought to survive, and how state authorities pulled the Little family in several directions. Payne’s writing movingly, and chillingly, portrays Malcolm’s early life as the stuff of Shakespeare’s tragedies: “Down through ensuing generations, the Little clan would appear to be haunted by the specter of death and disaster: house fires, prison, manslaughter, and arson, combined with race terror, feuding, mental breakdowns, and even murder.
The millions who have read Malcolm’s Autobiography, heavily edited by Alex Haley, know that the future activist had a rough childhood, even before his father died. Payne discloses just how challenging his circumstances were. From his father’s death, Malcolm began running with friends he met in the streets, committing minor crimes, and even stealing money meant to support his entire family. Payne interviewed a friend who knew Malcolm as a teenager, who related tales of daring adventures, even recklessness, including a memorable argument with white police officers. The young man challenged them to shoot him in the head after a routine (probably abusive) interaction. Malcolm alternated between struggling with school and excelling, proving popular among both Black and white students, but committing petty crimes to maintain community and, importantly, to survive.
Malcolm moved to Boston to stay with family, and he also spent time in Harlem, before landing in a maximum-security prison for breaking and entering. Importantly, Payne reveals that “Shorty,” the beloved mentor in the Autobiography whom Malcolm said taught him to hustle, was a composite of three men: a fellow prisoner, his brother-in-law, and his brother. Payne also shows that it’s unlikely Malcolm earned the moniker “Satan” in prison as he purports in Autobiography. Just as the young man had adapted to the streets of Lansing, Boston, and Harlem, he figured out how to survive prison life, doing all he could to be transferred to a lower-security prison. His brothers, recent converts to the Nation of Islam, promised him via letter that if their incarcerated brother would give up pork and cigarettes that they would teach him the secret to obtaining his transfer.
The Nation of Islam’s teaching were both familiar and revolutionary. Malcolm’s parents’ Garveyism had introduced him to Black pride and the idea of a Black god. However, Payne writes in derisive terms of Yakub’s history, the Nation of Islam’s founding cosmological narrative on the divine origins of Black people and the demonic nature of white people. For instance, Payne highlights Angela Y. Davis’s remembrance that she viewed the NOI’s mythos as “nonsense.” And yet, Malcolm enthusiastically taught Yakub’s history and began many of his public speeches and debates with statements like “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches…” Payne even quotes Davis as saying that such statements turned her and other potential Muslims off from the NOI.
The author seems unsure of how to write about a religion outside of the American mainstream like the NOI, and he downplays the significance of its teachings—some that Payne labels as “bizarre” or “exotic”—in shaping Malcolm’s life and career. Payne suggests that the NOI’s exclusivist theological teachings were opposed to a global worldview, writing that “Malcolm’s persuasive call to arms was widening the gap between his more global view and the dogma of Muhammad’s sect, weighted down with hocus-pocus religiosity.” This dismissiveness misses the fact that the NOI taught the shared Blackness (godliness) of all nonwhite peoples across the globe. The NOI lifted up all nonwhite people—including Asians, Indigenous peoples, Africans, and all other groups colonized by white Europeans. Malcolm’s global worldview began with the Nation of Islam, not with his departure from the faith.
ONE OF THE MOST significant additions to the study of Malcolm X’s life that Payne provides is insight into Malcolm and the Nation of Islam’s meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in January 1961. This information is based upon interviews with former Nation of Islam leader Jeremiah X Shabazz, who had never before spoken at length of the meeting with journalists or scholars. Payne reveals just how closely Malcolm stuck to Elijah Muhammad’s instructions for the meeting (to seek only to secure land for a separate Black state), despite his ability to run circles around them intellectually. Muhammad preached that Black people must separate (by choice) rather than integrate (be forced to live with white people). Like Manning Marable before him, Payne helps readers see why Malcolm would meet with the KKK, the embodiment of anti-Black terror in the United States, to accomplish the goal of separation. Malcolm acted on behalf of Muhammad’s wishes in meeting with the KKK, despite his belief that white supremacists had murdered his father. The act shows his devotion to the NOI and just how far the convert would go to accomplish the goals of a man he considered a prophet.
Fascinatingly, Payne’s interviewees reveal just how Malcolm’s leadership and charisma helped to convert hundreds to the Nation of Islam. Indeed, according to Payne, Malcolm’s charm made him much more effective than other NOI representatives. “Aside from ethical reform and Muslim submission, it was Malcolm’s clarion call for black resistance to racism that pitched him beyond the outer reaches of Elijah Muhammad’s strictly religious orbit,” Payne writes. However, Black resistance to racism had always been one of the Nation of Islam’s central theological tenets. As Payne points out, this was a large part of the NOI’s appeal. Calls to oppose racism inscribed Malcolm within the Nation of Islam’s worldview; it did not place him outside it.
Despite the dismissal of the NOI and its theology, Payne’s text sparkles when discussing an interview with a NOI convert in Hartford, Connecticut, Rosalie Glover. She related to Payne how Malcolm X introduced her to a new religion, and she recalled how emotional she became when talking with Malcolm all those years ago. Payne writes, “Mrs. Glover broke down sobbing and described to Malcolm the incident that had driven her out of the South more than a dozen years before—and that made her a refugee fleeing her birthright religion of Christianity.” Malcolm wrote Elijah Muhammad a letter telling of his successes with Glover and others, taking pride in the fact that the “dead were arising” in Connecticut—thus giving Payne the quotation for his book. (The Nation believes that Black people who are not members of their faith are mentally and spiritually “dead.”) Even when Payne does not adequately explain the NOI’s doctrines, he reveals how much they meant to individuals who embraced them—and that some converts viewed NOI as a safe harbor from the storms of Christian-supported white supremacy.
Payne’s prose sings as he discusses Malcolm’s decision to leave the Nation of Islam, though he does not give an extended analysis of why he converted to Sunni Islam. He points to Malcolm’s rivalries with Elijah Muhammad’s children born to Clara Muhammad and Malcolm’s criticism that Muhammad had fathered many more children with young Nation of Islam converts. While other biographers, and even Malcolm himself, had proven that Muhammad’s family and affairs had created doubt in Malcolm’s mind, Payne’s interviews with those who had once been Muhammad’s disciples show just how much danger Malcolm faced from within the Nation itself for his public critique of the faith’s leader.
Payne’s interviews with those who helped orchestrate violence against Malcolm X, and those who witnessed its aftermath in NOI circles, are extraordinary. Payne, quoting Malcolm’s former right-hand man, Captain Joseph (Gravitt), shows how the Nation’s firebombing of Malcolm’s family home in Queens was one of several attempts on the revolutionary’s life, and that senior leaders in the Nation of Islam had authorized Malcolm X’s assassination. He also spoke to those present at the Newark, New Jersey, mosque after Malcolm’s assassination, showing that the murder was not a surprise to the mosque’s leaders. Through interviews, Payne reaffirms the long-held contention, provided in a sworn affidavit by Thomas Hayer (who was convicted of Malcolm’s murder), that two of the other men convicted of the murder were not involved.
THE DEAD ARE ARISING IS now the definitive biography of Malcolm X, making it even more frustrating that Malcolm’s personal faith during the majority of his public-facing career, especially what he taught for more than a decade as a member of the Nation of Islam, does not receive as much attention as it should. Payne alludes to his membership in a “cult” several times. He writes that after leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was like “a cult member undergoing the early shocks of deprogramming.” Such dismissive language takes readers away from Malcolm’s intentions and motivations—and diminishes the Nation of Islam to a religious sideshow rather than an organization to be taken seriously. Payne doesn’t ignore the Nation of Islam’s religious teachings—he spends a chapter introducing the Nation of Islam’s origins—but he discusses them with a boundless skepticism, and often with sensationalism, in a way that does not show what would have led any converts to the Nation of Islam, much less any of the other Little family members who joined the faith.
There is no doubt that Malcolm’s actions, as a minister and NOI representative were guided by his religious convictions. He wrote, argued, preached, and prodded his audiences using the Nation of Islam’s theology and arguments created by Muhammad (but delivered with much more panache by Minister Malcolm). The revolutionary Muslim leader aligned himself with the ummah—followers of Islam across the globe—throughout his career as a Nation of Islam minister and spokesman. The Nation of Islam was ever-present in his life. Elijah Muhammad was not a distant mystic to Malcolm. Muhammad, and the religion he led, were ever-present in Malcolm’s life and politics.
Like other biographies, Payne’s outstanding book can help us understand how and why their subjects thought, acted, and reacted in the ways they did. The Dead are Arising, though, also serves as an example of how biographers can discount religious beliefs because of a sense that a person’s religion isn’t the right type of religion. Payne appropriately highlights the power and effect of Malcolm’s pro-Black, global, decolonization efforts, and willingness to do whatever it took to achieve Black liberation, but he downplays the debt that Malcolm’s attitudes and teachings owe to the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm’s biographies will always reflect the time in which they are written; historians and journalists live within time, space, and context, too. The Dead are Arising is truly a biography of Malcolm X for the current moment, as protests for Black people are resurgent across the globe, with gatherings planned and promoted and attended by religious people and non-religious people alike. Religion may not always be at the forefront of each participant’s reasons for participating, but it is also essential to remember that one’s priorities and motivations are not always informed by something considered concrete or “logical” by historians and biographers. Any number of reasons could be given for why someone supports a political view. Religion often provides justification for political stands, something that Americans would do well to remember in the present—perhaps especially anyone who has been inspired by Malcolm X in the time of Black Lives Matter.
Joseph Stuart is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at the University of Utah, where he studies race, masculinity, and religion.