When I spoke to Tamara Payne about the Malcolm X biography The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, the way she described her responsibility to the famed human rights icon was simultaneously simple and daunting.
“We’re bringing Malcolm back to us,” Payne said.
The Dead Are Arising is the product of nearly 30 years of work by Payne’s father, the legendary Pulitzer-winning journalist Les Payne. The elder Payne died in 2018 and Tamara, who had been the primary researcher on the project, stepped in to finish the book, which won the 2020 National Book Award for nonfiction.
The book’s release last October coincided with an America exhibiting striking parallels to the country in which Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965: one bursting at the seams with racial strife, political chaos and a maddening cloak of white supremacy. And one in which Black folks were staring death in the face to prove their lives mattered.
The Paynes’ book is not a repeat of Malcolm X’s autobiography, one of the most powerful bestsellers in history. Instead, it peels back the layers of every facet of Malcolm X’s life and family history and places them in context. They dug through mounds of classified documents and did hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family, friends, associates and enemies, many of whom don’t recall events the way Malcolm X did. These include the details of his father’s death, his time in prison, the Nation of Islam’s meeting with the Ku Klux Klan, his time in Ghana and the day of his assassination.
Days before the 56th anniversary of his assassination, Tamara Payne sat down with to discuss Malcolm X and her hopes for the book’s legacy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe your emotions the night before the book was released?
The night before it was kind of like everything was on hold, really. Like something big is about to happen. I think it really happened for me when Amazon started putting up the presales. And then it was just kind of like, OK, it’s public now.
Why was the historical context so important to this book?
In Dad’s first interviews, it was all news. And Dad as a journalist, he wants to know what’s new, what’s hard to find out. He was excited about that, but he also said we have to put him in context. We have to understand the world he was born into. Malcolm is always presented as fully formed and angry, as if he’s sprung out of nowhere.
I can’t tell you how many people have walked up to me and said, ‘I don’t like Malcolm. He was too aggressive. That’s why he failed.’ These are white guys. I mean, just even the audacity to say that after just meeting me. And I was like, ‘Well, what do you know about what was going on in 1965?’ And they were like, ‘Not much.’ I said, ‘Well, let me explain to you what was going on and what the fights were.’
So if you really think about Malcolm’s response, he was acting natural to the circumstances he was in. Now, how do we get into that? You have to understand history. But to just say that you don’t like Malcolm when you’re taking him out of context, and he wasn’t speaking to you anyway?
We wanted to provide a context for Malcolm and the world he was born into, as well as his life with his family and who he was as a person.
I can’t tell you how many times I found myself saying, ‘Wow! I never knew that.’ How did your appreciation for Malcolm change over the course of writing this book?
My admiration for Malcolm only deepened. My father was a deep admirer of Malcolm. And he, before meeting [Malcolm’s] brothers, didn’t even feel that there was a need to have a biography of Malcolm because we had the autobiography and we had his speeches. My dad used to play his speeches on weekends for us growing up. I have vivid memories of that. When you listen to Malcolm at 6 or 7 years old to The Ballot or The Bullet or Message to the Grassroots, it doesn’t mean you understand every word that comes out of his mouth. But you understand the emotions, the timbre and his use of language, and you recognize that analysis and that critique when you hear it and feel it.
When we were doing research on Malcolm, and we’re finding out different things — like with the Klan meeting in 1961 — I was like, ‘Oh, man, he met with the Klan.’ We knew that that had happened. But also understanding that he really didn’t want to be in a meeting negotiating anything with the Klan. He’d rather have a face-off. But he’s a representative for Elijah Muhammad, as is Jeremiah X. But Malcolm is different. It’s kind of like Malcolm had bigger ideas for what the Nation of Islam was going to be. And we understood that early on. And it got him in trouble. He wrote about that in his autobiography.
But when we read it in this book, I think you get a more sense of, wow. He had to be set down quite a few times because of his energy and his enthusiasm. The reason is because Elijah Muhammad wanted it to be a certain way. He didn’t want to mix it up with white people and the integrationists and Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. He just wanted to be in his own separate thing. Let us do our own community, and leave us alone, and have our own separate state. Malcolm was like, ‘If we’re going to be citizens of this country, how do we do that with help?’ And he probably figured that it was going to take time to figure out how to make that happen. And so he always had larger ideas. You can even see that when he split, even though that tore him apart. But he knew he had to because he had outgrown the organization.
So for me, my emotional thing was that my admiration for him deepened. And especially when you realize the context. His cause was for this country to work for everybody. And he never put himself in front of that cause. I know people may want to say that he did, but he didn’t.
Once you realize the history that goes along with this, including what happened before, particularly the stuff of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois and the others, you get a real sense of who we are as a people. Which is why I encourage people, when they read this, I hope that they also will look at their own families. Because our families lived at the same times Malcolm’s family lived through. So we’re products of the Great Migration, right? Our families lived through the Great Depression. Our stories, I’m sure, will be very similar to what Malcolm’s family went through.
Why do you think Malcolm was searching for something to believe in so much that it became his own worst enemy?
Well, it has to go back to losing his father at such an important age. He was 6 years old when his father died. And after that, he kind of is searching for somebody to fill that void. His father was huge in his life. His father would take him to UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association] meetings so he got to see his father in action. So when his father’s gone, and there isn’t that disciplinarian, there isn’t that person organizing the chores and making sure that everybody carries their weight for the household to run, you kind of need that.
That happens to a lot of people, men and women, when they lose their father or whomever that parent is. They search in different ways. And I think when you look at it that way, you also look at him as a human being. And this is not unusual. Of course, if somebody important to you dies, you’re going to miss that person, but there’s this huge hole. And sometimes you try to figure out how to fill it.
You see that with his relationship with Elijah Muhammad. He filled that hole of the father figure who could actually give him that protection, the guidance, a structure for him to fall into to move up and down the structure. The framework of the Nation of Islam, right? So it gives him kind of a placement, something to fit into, and someplace where he can grow. So the Nation of Islam is very important. And it was a good organization. And I still think it’s an important organization. And Malcolm always said that, even after the split. But no organization’s perfect. There are going to be problems, period.
What do this book and movies like Judas and the Black Messiah or One Night in Miami say about America’s fear of Black liberation?
They’re afraid. I mean, Black liberation of our minds and our hearts has always been a threat. COINTELPRO wasn’t particularly created against Black liberation. It was created against whatever J. Edgar Hoover deemed to be a threat to American society. And Black liberation of mind and heart is what he considered to be a threat against the American status quo and white supremacy.
What do you hope this book does to those long-standing questions about Malcolm’s death and who was behind it?
Information is powerful. This is something my father has always taught us growing up. We need information to be able to make informed decisions. So to understand it’s not simply that the Nation assassinated Malcolm, and how the order went out from Elijah Muhammad. But also understanding that it was weakened from within through the forces that they had no control over in the U.S. government. That’s important. I think those questions are still out there. I still think that there may be other organizations that had an interest in seeing Malcolm die.
We are telling the most accurate story that we can tell. This is not based on supposition. This is based on actual investigative reporting. We spoke to real people. We have real sources who shared these stories, who told us what they knew. And they knew this was going to go into this book. Yeah, people are going to have problems with it. But sometimes information is going to take you down a road where you may not want to go, you think you don’t want to go. But at the end of the day, it’s enlightenment. You can make better decisions for yourself and your life once you have the truth. And we’re getting closer to it. The amount of work that my father spent on those last chapters — he was working at his highest level of his craft.
It was dangerous. And it took courage and it took commitment. And he never wavered from that. He wanted to solve it. I don’t think it’s fully solved, but we definitely are adding to that picture. And that’s important. Malcolm’s death is an open wound for us as a community. It really is. As is Martin Luther King’s. Medgar Evers. All of these deaths, they’re open wounds for us. And we have to figure out ways to heal. But part of understanding how to heal is how they went down and whose hands were involved in that. Only then can we really look at healing, because part of that is also looking at accountability.
How do you feel knowing this book will be known as one of the definitive accounts of Malcolm’s life?
It’s a huge responsibility because of the admiration we have for Malcolm. And we know that Malcolm was one of the most important, charismatic figures of the 20th century. That’s no question about. I think that it is time that we really embrace him as that. Including people who said, ‘Well, when he was around, I didn’t listen to him. I didn’t agree with him.’ And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s important that people understand they don’t have to choose between Martin and Malcolm, because they’re both important.