In extensive, riveting detail, the book describes Malcolm’s assassination as he gave a speech in Harlem, an event that has left generations wondering what might have been. Many mourn the loss of a figure who was willing to tell the truth about race in America as he saw it, and there is an assumption that, had he lived, he would have continued that uncompromising assessment. On the other hand, some have speculated that over time, Malcolm would have become a more mainstream figure, compromising with the system to the extent of running for political office. But the fourth phase of Malcolm X has instead been a posthumous one, with this biography as one of its most substantial landmarks.
Though this 640-page book doesn’t match the raw excitement and idiosyncrasy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, it captures the uncompromising clarity that speaks to this moment of Black Lives Matter. Since his death, Malcolm X’s ideas have circled like planes in a holding pattern, dropping down when landing slots are freed up. Embedded in music culture from Erykah Badu to Wu-Tang Clan, his revolutionary message is manifest on the streets today, emblazoned on the chests of those protesting against the state-sponsored murder of African Americans, expressed in their demands for justice “by any means necessary”.
Malcolm would no doubt have been intrigued by this year’s street protests. But this new biography, by the late Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Les Payne and his daughter, Tamara, suggests that the older, less reckless Malcolm would have kept his distance, put off by the movement’s lack of discipline, and sceptical about its multiracial character. The Paynes, fortified by hundreds of interviews with family and associates, have thrown some fresh light on the legend created by the Autobiography published in the months after his murder in 1965.
The Dead Are Arising, a new biography of Malcolm X, is timely. But perhaps this sobering book’s clearest message is that it will always be timely, because the story it narrates is timeless. In 1964 it would be Harlem, in 1965 Watts, in 1967 Detroit. Today, it’s Minneapolis and Louisville.
Little new is added to the tale of Malcolm’s life of crime, and the book oddly takes its title from the idea that black Americans were dead until they converted and rose into the NOI. True, Malcolm’s political solutions, in particular the creation of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity in 1964, are discussed, but only briefly. And there is too little on the deep and decades-long international dimension to his activism. The focus on his assassination is unfortunate because it covers familiar ground (especially as it follows this year’s Netflix documentary series, Who Killed Malcolm X?).
It’s a fascinating, if strange episode. Sad to say, however, most of this 500-odd page narrative is rambling and repetitive. The authors might have been better advised to write a shorter book focusing on the family interviews. He gives us far too much on Malcolm’s criminal career and then skates through his rise and fall as a national leader. Once he began to harbour doubts about Muhammad’s character, Malcolm swiftly fell from grace. Some of the damage was self-inflicted, however.