"The Dead Are Arising"
Trymaine Lee: In his eulogy for Malcolm X, the actor and activist Ossie Davis described the slain minister as a prince. "Our own Black, shining prince."
Ossie Davis: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, Black manhood. This was his meaning to his people: own our Black, shining prince who did not hesitate to die because he loved us so.
Lee: In the decades since his 1965 assassination at New York's Audubon ballroom, nearly every detail of Malcolm X's life and death has been mythologized, pored over, and scrutinized. He's been the subject of documentaries, major feature films, a whodunit docuseries on Netflix, and countless books including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the seed from which so much of our understanding and admiration of X grew.
Many of us devoured the autobiography in our teen years, playing Spike Lee's masterwork film about him on repeat. We even rocked hats with a big X emblazoned on them, and hung posters of our fiery Black prince on our walls. He represented a sense of Black independence, Black self-sufficiency, and Black pride that had never before been captured so unflinchingly at a time when being too Black and too proud could be a death sentence.
Malcolm X: Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach (CROWD) to get like the white man? (CROWD) Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose, and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? (CROWD)
Lee: All these years later, it would seem as if there's nothing more to say or nothing more to learn about the life and times of Malcolm X. But that assumption would be wrong. A new biography titled The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by the late journalist Les Payne offers new context to X's life, gathered from more than 30 years of reporting and interviews with folks who knew the leader personally and bore a witness to Malcolm X becoming Malcolm X. At a 2017 lecture at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, Les Payne told the audience how he got started.
Les Payne: I was in Detroit and I'd met Malcolm's brother. We were at a cocktail party. And so I talked with him and he began to talk about their childhood. And I said, "Hey, that's very interesting. I don't know anything about this." So I said, "Can I come to your house tomorrow and we could talk some more?" And he said, "Fine."
So I went to his house the next day and taped eight hours of conversation with him. What it was like growin' up, how did he relate to his mother, what was the family like livin' Omaha and then East Lansing, Michigan? And he was tellin' me all of this-- none of which I knew.
Lee: Payne, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, was unflinching in his own right. And for Black journalists like me, Payne wasn't just a mentor or hero, he was an archetype. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and editor at Newsday, and the founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.
He faced down armed guerilla soldiers in Zimbabwe, risked his life sneaking in and out of apartheid South Africa after the country had banned him, and even faced death threats while at home on Long Island. His precision as a writer was matched only by his unbendable will to get the story, and get it right.
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Mr. Payne died before The Dead Are Arising could be published, but his daughter, Tamara, who served as a researcher for the book, went on to complete it. Late last month, it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
T. Payne: I wanted to make sure that his voice was in this work. So that's what I'm most proud of, that it's complete but also that it sounds like him.
Lee: Today, a conversation with Tamara Payne and her mother, Violet Payne, on the influence of Malcolm X on their family, and fulfilling Les Payne's last great work of journalism.
In the opening line of the book's introduction, Tamara Payne writes, "When my father, Les Payne, began his research for The Dead Are Arising in 1990, Malcolm X was very much alive in the consciousness of the Black community." But our story today begins decades before that moment, when Violet Payne met the man who would be her husband for nearly 52 years.
V. Payne: (LAUGH) We met on a blind date.
Lee: (LAUGH) A blind date?
V. Payne: A double blind date. But we weren't partnered up, but we partnered afterwards.
Lee: Lucky him--
V. Payne: Yes.
Lee: --I guess. Lucky, lucky Mr. Payne. (LAUGHTER)
V. Payne: Well, lucky me.
Lee: That's great.
V. Payne: I think that I was fascinating by the way he'd talk, and how he analyzed situations. He loved to debate. He would debate at that time on anything.
Lee: How do you think his personality kinda informed his reporting and writing style?
T. Payne: He was really interested in the news that affected the Black community 'cause it wasn't necessarily represented. And that was always his concern, 1) to make sure that we were accurately represented. And that we understood that the news affects us no matter where it's coming from, whether it's coming from abroad where we're serving in higher numbers in the Army, or if we're here. You know, and how it affects our communities when we're teaching or our school systems, and all of that was important.
Lee: You know, Mr. Payne was an intrepid journalist both here and abroad. He centered our stories and he was applauded, rightly so, for that. But he also got a lot of criticism from those who opposed him. You know, I heard a story that, you know, the folks at Newsday joked that they knew all the bomb-sniffing dogs by name because people were, like, writing in death threats and all--
V. Payne: That's true.
Lee: --the craziness. And I do wonder, Mrs. Payne, how did Mr. Payne handle all of that?
V. Payne: Well, he thought that, "Well, at least they're reading me."
V. Payne: You know, he said--
Lee: (LAUGH) Right.
V. Payne: --"And it increases the circulation to Newsday." (LAUGH) But, I mean, we had to be cautious, you know, because we did receive some phone calls. And some of these people were irate. But I noticed there was one thing that they used to talk about, was that they could not stop reading him.
T. Payne: When I was 16, Dad had (LAUGH) written--
V. Payne: Yeah.
T. Payne: --Dad would write about the cops all the time, and how they would harass Black people, the unfair treatment of Black people, how they were arrested Black people at a higher rate. And one of the cops from Suffolk County calls up the house, 'cause we didn't have an unlisted phone number. I answered the phone. "My father's not home." And I say, "I'm his daughter." And he goes on railing about how he hates my father's columns, "How dare he write that about my--"
Lee: To a child. Right.
T. Payne: I'm 16 years old. (LAUGH) You know?
Lee: How did that feel? Did you ever feel like your life was actually in danger?
T. Payne: Look, knowing my father, he was very outspoken. And he would always tell us that there is a price for that. And knowing the story of Martin and Malcolm and what happened to them, you know, we knew that, if you're gonna be outspoken on these issues and people didn't wanna hear it that there were prices to pay, there were sacrifices to be made for that.
Lee: Tamara, what was your relationship like with your dad? I mean, folks who grew up with these kinds of figures who are full of life and they're these personalities and they're career driven, sometimes we forget the dynamics between father and son and father and daughter.
T. Payne: Earlier on, for me, growing up he was really working hard and so he wasn't home a lot, you know. So, like, I remember Dad would go to work at 10:00, come home at 10:00. And then, when he would come home, I remember I used to tell Mom I wouldn't be able to fall asleep unless I heard him typing, you know, away 'cause he was (LAUGH) always working on something, you know, some story. And that's when I knew that he was home safe.
But my father, you know, he was strong personality and such a amicable person, like you could talk with him, you could get along with him. He made it easy to talk so people really opened up to him. And he would ask you questions because a lot of people, they wanna be seen, they wanna be heard. And he wanted to know. Even if you're a racist, he wanted to know, "Well, what's your thinking? What brings you to that position?"
Lee: Let's think back to, like, 10- and 11-year-old Tammy, and you gotta do your book report. (LAUGH) And having Les Payne, the editor, as your dad, (LAUGH) I'm tryin' to imagine. I try not to be too hard on my daughter. I have a third grader and I'm like, "Okay, let her do her thing a little bit." But what was it like for you, havin' Les Payne, the editor, as your dad?
T. Payne: He was tough. (LAUGHTER) He was tough. But he would also show me how he edited his own reporters who were grown people, adults. And he'd say, "You think that's bad, what I do on your paper? I mean, you should see. Here, look at this." And then that was one way of learning to accept the criticism. And these are huge lessons that shape us, right? How to accept criticisms, not to be coddled. Yes, you're good but you wanna be better. How do you improve? And that's what he really instilled with us.
And the other thing I have to say, having both my mom and my father together, I mean, they were such a teamwork. 'Cause he would often say (LAUGH) a lotta times that part of the reason he was writing those columns was for my mom (LAUGHTER) 'cause she really wanted to read them.
Lee: It works.
T. Payne: As well as help the community, but he said, "Your mother keeps askin', (LAUGHTER) you know, 'Where's the column? What are you writing about this time?' You know, this week"--
Lee: Right. Mrs. Payne, it's clear that Mr. Payne had an admiration and respect for Malcolm X. And I wonder how that played in your life, and how you all kind of, you know, engaged over the ideas of Malcolm X together.
V. Payne: When I was at Howard University, I had worked on project awareness, unbeknownst to my parents, that brought Malcolm X to Howard to speak. I was an usher at that. There was a lot of self-hatred at the time. The news, the newspapers, the magazines, we were given these negative images. So we had to find a way not to hate ourselves. Malcolm, even though he was very boisterous in his comments and his speeches, he would say, "You don't have to hate yourself."
Lee: The ideas that Malcolm was talkin' about, that was pretty radical for that time, the idea of--
V. Payne: Oh yes.
Lee: --self-respect and self-sufficiency. That was a big deal at the time.
V. Payne: That's right. And a lotta people had thought of him as bein' anti-white when, really, the society was anti-Black.
Lee: Tamara, how did-- how did your father introduce you to Malcolm X?
T. Payne: He used to play his speeches in the house on the weekends.
Lee: At what age are we talkin'?
T. Payne: I was young. Seven, eight. (LAUGH) Even younger than that.
Malcolm X: This modern house Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He'll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master. And then brag about, "I'm the only Negro out here." (CROWD)
T. Payne: Ballad of the Bullet.
Malcolm X: So today, our people are disillusioned. They've become disenchanted. They've become dissatisfied. And in their frustrations, they want action. You'll see this young, Black man, this new generation askin' for the ballot or the bullet.
Crowd Voice: Damn.
T. Payne: He would play also Martin Luther King. It wasn't solely Malcolm X. But it was important that he wanted us, me and my brothers, to hear the voices of that movement. I mean, I was born a year after Malcolm died. So when I'm hitting school age, there are still these attitudes that just didn't go away. And they still remain.
And people like to say, "Oh, everything's gotten better. People have gotten over it." I say no. It went underneath. Dad would always explain to me, whereas it was out in the open back in the '60s when he and my mother were coming up, it went into the institutions. It became institutionalized when we were coming up.
Lee: Do you remember the day that Mr. Payne said, "You know what? I think I wanna write a book on Malcolm X"? Do you remember when he made the decision?
V. Payne: Yes. He was approached about writing the book. You know, the discussion was, "Well, what can I write about?" You know, he thought everything was written in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was pushing him on to do it 'cause of the way he thought and the way he cared. There had been books that had been written about Malcolm, but they tend not to express the humanity in the man.
T. Payne: I'd like to add a little bit to that, Trymaine. He had interviewed the brothers, Philbert and Wilfred. And he was processing what he had learned from those interviews. And he couldn't let it go. He found the stuff out about Malcolm's childhood and family life, and then he said, you know, "It's amazing. We don't know this about him, and we should because it makes up this person that we all come to admire and talk about."
Malcolm has always been presented to us as fully formed and angry. But what was he like when he was three years old? What was he like with his brothers? What was his relationship like with his mother and his father? Who is this person? What was the world that he was born into? Because he didn't spring out of nowhere.
Lee: When we come back, Tamara tells me about how her father set out to answer some of those questions. Plus, what it was like to work alongside him for nearly three decades.
Lee: Tamara began helping her father with his book almost from the beginning. She'd been planning to attend grad school in the early '90s, but decided to make this her grad school instead.
T. Payne: So, in the beginning, it was just matter of doing research, going to institutions and libraries all over the country, you know, and pulling up as much information as you can. The FBI, I even had to go into the Hoover building for the FBI to do research there, and National Archives, all kinds of places.
But then also, I was able to meet people who knew Malcolm. When Malcolm was assassinated, it was a very difficult time for a lot of people because of the trial, the murder trial. People were upset. And it was a powder keg. And so a lot of people who were close to Malcolm and worked with him, they kinda disappeared.
They became quiet. You didn't hear from them. Some of 'em left the country. At that time, in 1990, it's over 20 years after his passing, people are startin' to come back. Each time, what I was learning from Dad was Dad was an incredible interviewer. The craft of interviewing is just an interesting craft, and how you prepare for it. And then the re-interview, you know, and cross-checking it and coming back. And it was really, you know, a learning experience.
Lee: As someone who has missed a couple book deadlines myself I have to ask, like, what was the initial deadline? Because here we are, 30 years later. Was there a sense in the beginning of, like, "We'll take a couple years to do this"? Like, what was the deal in the beginning?
T. Payne: I don't even remember what the original deadlines were, (LAUGH) to be honest you, but.
V. Payne: It was about around the 1990s.
T. Payne: Yeah. We definitely missed that one. (LAUGHTER)
V. Payne: Yeah. Oh, yes, we did.
Lee: Just by about 20 years.
V. Payne: Yes.
T. Payne: Ooh, just missed that.
Lee: You know, it's all right. (LAUGHTER)
T. Payne: Even after, you know, these deadlines are passing, even during his last year of his life, he was still meeting people, you know, who were important to the story and getting those interviews.
Lee: You say Mr. Payne was still lookin' for folks he wanted to talk to. What was that actual process like?
T. Payne: Started with the brothers, you know, and he would talk about, well, for example, "Who are your friends? You know, who were you socializing with at that time?" And then even when they're talkin' about being in the Nation, "Who were the most important people? Like, who worked closely with Malcolm?" That's how we found out where, you know, Malcolm was staying with this couple after he came outta jail and joined the Nation.
Lee: The Nation Tamara's referring to there is the Nation of Islam, a political and religious organization founded in the 1930s. It's a combination of traditional Islam with Black nationalist ideas. Malcolm X joined the Nation while serving a prison term for robbery. After getting out in 1952, he moved to Chicago to become a minister under the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad. He broke from the organization in 1964.
T. Payne: They filled in the details about what that was like, you know. When he first joined the Nation, how he was totally committed and very disciplined about following all the teachings and the tenets and the practices. You know, not eating pork, not smoking, not drinking.
And even when other people were having problems, and then he would be really hard on those people, you know. "If you're gonna be in the Nation, you have to be fully committed. You have to turn your life around." So he was speaking from a place of experience and in a way that he could touch people.
But then he also had this thing of like, "In order to turn you around, this is what you have to do." And some people just weren't ready to make that commitment. And that was something we didn't necessarily know. I mean, he would talk about it from his perspective. But to hear that from people who were on the receiving end of that--
T. Payne: --and some people who would say, "Yeah, I wasn't ready so I would just take time out, (LAUGHTER) you know, and just be out of the Nation. But I would direct other brothers to go in it," you know. And you hear those stories. So it's getting these stories, and they're filling out the details of that time period.
And then you talk to people and you say, "Who else can you recommend that we speak to?" you know. And they would say, "Let me think about it." And then they would call 'em and they would tell 'em. You know, "Here are some other people. I actually reached out to them, here's their information." And it would go that way.
Lee: Where does the title The Dead Are Arising, where did that come from?
T. Payne: It's actually a term that the Nation of Islam used when people are outside of the Nation and they're dead. They don't know their true selves. They have not embraced Elijah Muhammad's teachings. But Malcolm would use this term, "The dead, they are arising."
You know, it means basically they're coming to the know of their true selves. And Malcolm would say this in his letters to Elijah Muhammad, he would talk about, "We are having frustrations in dealin' with some of the people in our membership. But, you know, the dead, they are arising. They're accepting it. And we're gaining ground there."
Lee: So speaking of kind of new revelations. We thought we knew everything there was to know about Malcolm but, as you mentioned, this book puts more of his life in context. But there's also the story about Malcolm X meeting the Klan. That's news to (LAUGH) a lot of us. Walk us through that story.
T. Payne: So what happens, he's in Atlanta, at the temple with Minister Jeremiah X, who was the head of the Atlanta temple. And Malcolm is there visiting, giving a sermon. And while he's givin' a sermon, this telegram from the Klan comes in and says that they wanna meet.
And Jeremiah and Malcolm are not the head of the Nation of Islam so they have to go meet with Elijah Muhammad and say, "Look, we have this invitation. We got this telegram. What do you want us to do?" And Elijah Muhammad, who wants to set up, you know, more temples (LAUGH) in the South, he wants to get land because he wants to set up a separate state, what the Nation of Islam at that point wants is total separation. They don't want to integrate, you know, with white people.
They don't even wanna vote. They don't wanna serve in the Army, in the military. And the Klan, you know, they wanna keep their life the way it is. They want segregation. You know, and Martin Luther King and his civil rights groups are protesting for integration.
So the Klan feels threatened by the civil rights groups, and they see that, you know, the Nation doesn't wanna deal with the civil rights groups. He said, "So maybe we can have an alliance." And they're tryin' to form an alliance with the Nation of Islam. You know, and Malcolm doesn't wanna do that.
And when he hears what Elijah Muhammad wants to do with, you know, negotiating for land, he doesn't agree with this. But he still wants to impact how this meeting goes. He doesn't wanna have bad agreements for the group. So he wants to have an impact on that meeting, but he is not comfortable with it. In the book, we go into the details of how that plays out. Malcolm talked about that before he died, and he said that, you know, he regretted being a part of that.
Lee: Tamara, what was your relationship with your father like, workin' on this project?
T. Payne: We always had a good relationship; it deepened while working on this. And then I just had tremendous respect, and even more respect while working with him. Just to see how, you know, to watch how he would process the information, do these interviews, even during the writing phase. I mean, writing is a solitary act, but he would give me the chapters to read.
And I would be like, "Okay, this is great." And then he would say, "Okay, this is not where I want it to be though." And then he would rewrite it, and then (LAUGH) it would be even better, but not knowing how to make it that way. And it really just made me aware of his voice, why he would make certain word selections.
He really wanted to make it visual. He wanted to draw the audience in, and that was his style. So after he passed, it was just really important that that stay, that that remain, because that's, to me, also very powerful. Not just having this information, but having it told in this way.
Lee: Mrs. Payne, what was it like to watch Tammy and Mr. Payne working together on this?
V. Payne: I thought it was the best thing in the world. (LAUGHTER) You know? I really did. Because when she was very young, I had felt, you know, that Les was building his career. And this was a way for him to bond with her. It was complete.
Lee: Yeah. Tammy, you know, I had the honor and privilege of knowing your father a little bit. And as I mentioned, I have such a deep respect for him. And when he passed, I was shocked, and so I can only imagine what it was like for you all, the family. And I wonder if, in the mourning process, did you ever for a second think about not finishing the book? Or how did that loss impact moving forward with this project, which is your father's life work?
T. Payne: I only thought about finishing the book.
Lee: Hmm. That was it?
V. Payne: As well as I. That we needed to get this book out--
T. Payne: Yeah.
V. Payne: --'cause it was very important.
T. Payne: And there's no way I would have been able to do it without the support of my family behind me on that, to spend full time getting this book finished and published. And so, yeah, it wasn't even a question.
Lee: Tammy, I wonder, the book is finished, you worked together on this, you got it. Ultimately, what do you think this book contributes to the legacy of Malcolm X?
T. Payne: I think it puts Malcolm in a context. I mean, it brings out more of the family relationship and who this person is, and how he came to be. It shows more the arc. And the other thing is, when you see, like, his relationships with his family and with his friends and how he matured, all those experiences, how they form him, they're things that people are gonna relate to.
T. Payne: You know, that they didn't know. And it humanizes him, and it shows that these are decisions that he made, and how he navigated his life. And it's not that different from what we're doing. So many people put him on such a pedestal and he could do no wrong. But, again, because he was fully formed to us.
But now it's like, "Okay, well, how did he get there?" There are people who like to focus, for example, on his days hustling in New York and Boston doing the crime ring. And I have to put people, you know, on the spot and say he was a teenager.
T. Payne: If we're gonna be judged by the actions we took at 15, 16, 17, and 18 — which, yes, that's what the legal system wants to do with a lot of us — you know, that's not a fair judgment.
T. Payne: So what happens after and what is the context? There are people, I remember, who would tell me, "Well, what he said about women in his autobiography, you know, during those days. He was misogynistic. He was against women." I said, "But look at what he also says at the end of his life about women." He says that, "A country's gonna only be as advanced as the women. And they must educate their women."
Lee: Tamara, I wanna ask you first and then you, Mrs. Payne. The Dead Are Arising recently won the coveted National Book Award, and I'm wonderin' how you think Mr. Payne, your father, would feel about that accomplishment? Obviously he has a long list of accolades, but the National Book Award is a big one.
T. Payne: (SIGH) He'd be happy with the accolade. He didn't write books for the awards, but he wrote them to be the best and more accurate stories that he could do. The thing is he always understood that a lot of times, you know, awards can be subjective. And you can write award-winning material all the time, and it not receive the accolades.
I think what would get him is when I get correspondence from people who are reading the book who say this book has impacted them and will stay with them forever. That it is answering questions for them about Malcolm. And that's what he really believed--
Lee: What do you think--
T. Payne: --in.
Lee: --Mrs. Payne, about how Mr. Payne would, you know, think about this critical reception?
V. Payne: He would have been impressed and he would have loved it. But most of all, he would have loved the discussion that it generated. He was more into analyzing and talking to people, either to change their mind. Or, if they came to an incorrect conclusion of the work, he believed in straightening them out and then giving them examples to look at.
So he would have been very impressed with the award. It's bittersweet that he's not here, but I can see him now. He would love the discussion. He had tremendous hope for the youth, Black youth, because he felt that they weren't encumbered by all of the problems that the older Blacks had. And they weren't encumbered with the baggage of self-hate.
These people had a clear mind, and so they could take this information and they could take it much further, and the understanding. I am glad that people understand that this is the book that is about the humanity of the man, not just an episode of his life.
Lee: I wanna thank the two of you for your time and your words. And The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, it's a beautiful, important work. So I wanna thank you all again. I really appreciate it.
Both Paynes: Thank you, Trymaine. Thank you, Trymaine.
Lee: That was Violet and Tamara Payne, family of the late journalist Les Payne. Tamara is the coauthor of The Dead Are Arising, which she helped complete after her father's death in 2018. Now, before we go, I have one request for you: Let's be in touch. With love to hear from our listeners. So if you have any story ideas or feedback on the show, just hit us up.
You can write to us at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. That's IntoAmerica, all one word, at nbcuni.com. And if you like the show, subscribe so you don't miss a single episode. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.