By Les Payne and Tamara Payne
[Liveright; October 20, 2020]
One can only imagine the impact Malcolm X would have had in the ongoing struggle for human rights, had he not been murdered on February 21, 1965.
Days after his death, the actor Ossie Davis spoke for many Black Americans during his memorable eulogy for the minister and civil rights activist at Harlem’s Faith Temple Church of God. Davis said Malcolm X would be labeled by his detractors as a man “of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which we struggle!”
“And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis said at the end of the eulogy: “a Prince—our own black shining Prince!—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
The Dead Are Arising, a new biography about the life of Malcolm X released late last year, was the winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It was written by the pioneering, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Les Payne, who died in 2018, and his daughter, Tamara Payne. In a word, The Dead Are Arising is a masterpiece.
As gun violence continues to steal the lives of so many young Black men in the Triangle and across the country, learning about Malcolm X’s coming-of-age years—without his stern, Garveyite father to guide him and his older brother—are poignant. The breaking up of his family by a social service agency is instructive and heartbreaking.
Les, who worked as an editor with Newsday and was a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, first heard Malcolm X speak while he was a college student.
“On that June night,” Tamara writes, “My father came face-to-face with his own self-loathing.” In an essay, Les wrote about that June evening, too, asserting that he had “entered Bushnell Hall as a Negro with a capital N and wandered out into the parking lot—as a black man.”
In 1990, Les began a 30-year period of meticulous reporting, interviewing anyone he could find who knew Malcolm X: “his living siblings, classmates, cellmates, Nation of Islam figures, FBI moles and cops, and political leaders around the world.” It also offers a graphic, near-breathtaking, minute-by-minute account of Malcolm X’s assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, and the macabre celebration that followed on the part of those who knew of the plot to end his life.
Here, in the scheme to assassinate one of the past century’s most iconic human rights and revolutionary figures, there’s also a North Carolina connection: The architect behind his death was James Shabazz, chief minister of the Nation of Islam’s Newark mosque. Shabazz was originally from Southern Pines, N.C., where he was known as James Russell McGregor. Shabazz’s intense hatred of Malcolm, as the Paynes detail, was long-standing and born out of jealousy.
The Payne’s magnum opus is filled with carefully researched new revelations and does the essential work of correcting the historical record about Malcolm X’s life. Recommended reading for both serious African American scholars and students of American history, The Dead Are Arising is destined to become the definitive work about the life of one of this country’s most provocative figures.
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
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