We speak with the co-author of a major new biography of Malcolm X, “The Dead Are Arising,” which recently won the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction and offers a sweeping account of Malcolm X’s life by weaving together hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family, friends, colleagues and enemies. The book is based on decades of research by Les Payne, who died in 2018, and finished by his daughter, Tamara Payne. “The reason why he admired Malcolm is because Malcolm was dealing with the conditions that Black people are facing even internally and how we viewed ourselves in this situation,” she says, and describes how her father lived through the civil rights movement and strongly connected with Malcolm X’s teachings.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn right now to The Dead Are Arising. That’s the name of a new biography of Malcolm X that was just awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction last month.
The sweeping account of Malcolm X’s life by the late journalist Les Payne and his daughter, Tamara Payne, has been called a “fiercely analytical examination of the radical revolutionary as a human being.” The New York Times says, quote, “Nobody has written a more poetic account.”
The book is based on decades of research by Les Payne, who died in 2018. It weaves together hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family, friends, colleagues, enemies, to tell his life story, from his early years in Omaha, Nebraska, to his rise to prominence in the Nation of Islam to his assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City February 21st, 1965. He was only 39 years old, just like Dr. Martin Luther King when he was assassinated.
This is Malcolm X in his own words, speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in 1964, about a half-year before he was assassinated. The speech was called “By Any Means Necessary.”
MALCOLM X: One of the first things that the independent African nations did was to form an organization called the Organization of African Unity. The purpose of our Organization of Afro-American Unity, which has the same aim and objective, to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Malcolm X in his own words, speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in 1964. Just a year earlier, Les Payne heard Malcolm X speak at Bushnell Memorial Hall in Hartford, Connecticut. It was June 1963. At the time, Les Payne was one of only 60 African American students at the University of Connecticut, out of 10,000 enrolled students. This is Les Payne in 2018 reading his essay, “The Night I Stopped Being a Negro,” about his experience hearing Malcolm X speak.
LES PAYNE: By the end of the lecture, I felt — and knew — that something within me had changed, this time irreversibly. Whites henceforth would no longer be superior, Blacks — most important, I, myself — would no longer be inferior. This cardinal message, powerfully delivered to millions, would make Malcolm X a treasure for Black liberation and a serious threat to white America. Previously, my own conditioned sense of self-loathing had proved as difficult to remove as a tattoo, and here it was finally washed away by Malcolm’s acid bath of racial counterrejection, a primer on racial conditioning and tough-love logic. Until this June night, I had been imprisoned. But Malcolm X shook my dungeons, and, as a poet said, my chains fell off. I had entered Bushnell Hall as a Negro, with a capital N, and I wandered out into the parking lot as a Black man.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the late journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, editor at Newsday in New York, Les Payne, author of The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. The book is based on decades of research. It reveals new details about Malcolm’s assassination and other key parts of Malcolm’s life, including a secret 1961 meeting he had with the Ku Klux Klan and the mysterious death of his father in 1931.
For more, we’re joined by Les Payne’s daughter, Tamara Payne, co-author of The Dead Are Arising. She’s joining us from New York City.
It’s great to have you with us, Tamara. Congratulations on the National Book Award. It must have been so poignant for you, you finishing and also researching with your father this book and then posthumously winning the National Book Award. Talk about first the title, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, and this joint project you did with your father. Why Malcolm X?
TAMARA PAYNE: Hi, Amy. Thank you for inviting me on to talk about this. You know, Dad was a big fan of your show, Democracy Now!, and he would listen to it every day, and he’d definitely see the video of it.
About the book itself, The Dead Are Arising comes from the language that the members of the Nation of Islam would use to describe people when they were joining the nation. The people outside of the nation were dead and did not know their true selves. And once they came into the knowledge of who they were, they were considered basically members or family in the nation. But the process of that was becoming conscious and learning about who you are and accepting and embracing that, and doing that through the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, as well as the philosophy of the Nation of Islam that he was promoting at that time.
Dad, you know, he was an admirer of Malcolm X. You know, he grew up — he was born in 1941, born in the Jim Crow South, and moved up to Hartford, Connecticut, with his family at the age of 12. But he was aware what was going on in the '60s in the civil rights movement. He was living it. He was of that age. He was very much aware and wanted to know: How do we, as Black people, overcome the obstacles that are placed in front of us, and inside of us, to thrive in this country? And so he listened to all of them. He listened to Martin Luther King. He listened to all the preachers. He listened to Malcolm X. But Malcolm X, in particular, you know, the way he would analyze what was going on with our condition in society as Black people, Dad admired that. But he also admired Martin Luther King. Let's not, you know, say that he didn’t. But the reason why he admired Malcolm was because Malcolm was dealing with the conditions that Black people were facing even internally and how we viewed ourselves in this situation. And so, you know, as you played the clip of him speaking, he talked about how Malcolm had did that for him, when he spoke to him — when he saw him speak at Bushnell Memorial in 1963.
But he originally did not want to write a book about Malcolm, a biography about Malcolm, because he felt that we had everything to know, because there were the speeches, there was the autobiography already. But he had the opportunity to meet Malcolm’s brothers. He met one in Detroit, who was being treated by a good friend of his that he grew up with, Walter O. Evans, who was a surgeon. And he met one of the brothers, talked with him and interviewed him even. And he learned about Malcolm’s childhood life.
And then, when he came back, he spoke with a fellow journalist, Gil Noble, who hosted a show, Like It Is, who also had a love for Malcolm. And he talked about, “Hey, Gil, I met one of Malcolm’s brothers. I interviewed him, and I learned all this stuff about his family life, and it’s stuff that we don’t know. I haven’t seen this in the autobiography.” And Gil Noble asked him, “Which brother did you meet?” And he said, “Philbert.” He says, “I don’t know that one. The one you should talk to is Wilfred.” Philbert was Malcolm’s older brother by two years. Wilfred, it turned out, is Malcolm’s older brother by six years but also was Malcolm’s best friend.
And so, Dad went back, and he went to meet Wilfred and was able to interview him and did it for eight hours, and he recorded these interviews. And he was processing this. And it was from that’s what started, because what he learned — and he’s a journalist to his core — he learned that there’s a lot about Malcolm that we don’t know, his family life. Who is this person? Malcolm is presented to us fully formed and angry. But that’s not what happened. You know, he has a family. He has lineage. And who was — where was that coming from? And also, what was this world that Malcolm was born into? He didn’t just spring out of nowhere, even if he does have a family. You know, he didn’t just come out of the family angry. What was that about? And Dad was interested in exploring that. And that’s what he did with this book.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Tamara, I wanted to ask you — first of all, it’s a masterfully written book. I want to congratulate you. It’s a terrific read. But I wanted to ask about the — if you could talk somewhat about the approach that you and your father took in this book? Because, obviously, it’s more of an investigative reporting approach than, let’s say, Manning Marable’s book of a few years ago, which was much more of a history. Could you talk about the approach that your father took? Obviously, he was one of the pioneers of African American journalists in the late 20th century who broke into mainstream media. I think of people like Chuck Stone, who was a mentor of mine, Earl Caldwell, Bob Maynard, Nancy Hicks Maynard, DeWayne Wickham. These were all the giants — your father was among them — who sort of set the mold for the modern journalists of color. Could you talk about his approach in this book, as opposed to many of the other books that have been written about Malcolm in the past?
TAMARA PAYNE: Well, Dad’s view is that he’s a journalist. And journalists, they deal in source material, meaning that they do interviews. They want to get — first of all, they’re not necessarily drawn to stories that have already been reported out. And Dad has stated, even when talking about this project, that he was not interested in writing a book of his views of what’s already known. What he wanted to do was to talk about what was not known, and investigate and report that out — and wasn’t even so much talking about it, just report it out so that we have the information. The role of the journalist, really, is to provide us with information so that we can make more informed decisions. And that’s how Dad approached this.
And in doing that, that meant going to — starting with the brothers and Malcolm’s sisters and getting their stories and learning about their childhood, and then expanding that out to who their friends were, who Malcolm socialized with when he was taken from the house and planted in Mason in reformatory, and learning about that, those people, learning about — you know, meeting Malcolm Jarvis in Boston, and what those years were like, hustling in New York and meeting the people in New York who he spoke with. Dad met, and I also would transcribe a lot of these interviews.
And in other cases, you know, I also got to me these people, too. One person I met through one of our interviews was Yuri Kochiyama, who was very helpful and generous with introducing me to a lot of people that she knew, because she was a follower of Malcolm. She was a member of the Organization for Afro-American Unity. She lived in Harlem. And she was very much a part of the struggle movement, and she was very generous with her time and her connections, and would introduce me to a lot of people that I had not — I didn’t know. And we would get their stories.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Yuri was there cradling Malcolm when he died, right? After he was shot.
TAMARA PAYNE: She was there at the Audubon with her oldest son.
AMY GOODMAN: And another person who was there when he was assassinated, who was up there, like Yuri Kochiyama, was Gene Roberts, the New York police informant, the undercover detective. Can you talk about him, Tamara?
TAMARA PAYNE: Sure. I mean, he trained in the military. He was a medic in the military. And when he came out of the military, he ended up joining the police. Now, he didn’t go through police training officially, but they brought him in. And what’s really interesting about this is that Blacks in the ’60s were not necessarily brought into the police to walk the beats of the streets. They were actually brought in to be informants and to do the undercover stuff.
And Gene Roberts was one of them. He was college-educated. He was smart. He had served in the military. So he had these different clearances. And so, he was an informant. And he fit the mold. And he took that seriously. When he joined, you know, the BOSS and got the assignment to infiltrate Malcolm’s organization, he did that and joined the security force, and he ended up being on Malcolm’s security. And he was on the security when Malcolm was assassinated in the Audubon.
AMY GOODMAN: And your father interviewed him extensively.
TAMARA PAYNE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: In the last 30 seconds we have, and then we’re going to do Part 2, Tami, if you can talk about what most surprised you in the work you did with your father on Malcolm X’s life?
TAMARA PAYNE: Working on this book for 30 years, I mean, there are a lot of things that came out that were interesting. And I think, for me, it was more that — you know, where this path of the work was taking us, and not so much it was surprising, but just learning and understanding about that time. I mean, this is a time before I was born, and so this is history that’s hugely impactful to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Tamara, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re not leaving it there, because we’re going to do a post-show interview with you and post it online at democracynow.org. Tamara Payne is the daughter of the late journalist Les Payne. They co-authored the book The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. It just won the National Book Award. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.