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Malcolm X Biography Wins National Book Award


Years ago, Les Payne was a New York newspaper columnist. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner, one of the stars of his paper, Newsday. Occasionally, he wrote a column about Malcolm X. But readers may not have realized just how much Les Payne was interested. His daughter Tamara Payne says he reread Malcolm's autobiography every five years.

TAMARA PAYNE: Because Malcolm really spoke clearly and concisely about our history in America and the troubled relationship that Blacks have with whites in America, and Dad understood that.

INSKEEP: In 1990, Les Payne met one of Malcolm's surviving brothers and was surprised to learn he didn't know the full story.

PAYNE: It appealed to his sensibilities as a journalist, and he wanted to tell this story the only way he knew how, which was to use journalism.

INSKEEP: Employing his daughter Tamara as his researcher, Les Payne began interviewing more people, finding documents and writing a book. It took him the rest of his life - 28 years. The book wasn't quite finished when he died in 2018, but his daughter Tamara Payne completed it, and this month it won one of the highest prizes in American writing.

What went through your mind when you realized that this work had won the National Book Award?

PAYNE: I was so happy that my father received the accolades for his life's work and - you know, and that I miss him.

INSKEEP: The biography of Malcolm X is called "The Dead Are Arising." It's especially revealing about Malcolm's youth. The adult Malcolm X of the 1960s was a controversial and charismatic figure, a defiant Black nationalist, a fiery alternative to Martin Luther King. Young Malcolm Little was a kid from the Great Plains.

I associate Malcolm X, of course, with New York, where he spent a lot of his adult life and where he was assassinated. But now I know that he was born and grew up around Omaha, Neb. He's my fellow Midwesterner. What was it like for him growing up there?

PAYNE: So, yeah, he grew up in Omaha - he was born in Omaha, Neb., and his family was there for a couple of years. His parents were Garveyites. They followed Marcus Garvey's movement, the United Negro Improvement Association, and they set out outposts in different areas.

INSKEEP: Marcus Garvey, an immigrant writer, speaker and activist in the early 1900s. Garvey's group promoted Black self-reliance and dignity and separation from white people. But when Malcolm Little's parents moved to a farm outside Omaha, representatives of a very different group of people came by.

PAYNE: This book opens in Omaha, Neb., when Malcolm's in utero. And their family, the Little family, is visited by their local Klan's chapter in Omaha, Neb.

INSKEEP: His pregnant mother stared down the Ku Klux Klan, and the Klansman left. Luckily, his father, who they really wanted, wasn't home. Not long after that, Malcolm was born in 1925. And Tamara Payne says she found traces of the Midwest in his later life.

PAYNE: Malcolm was down to earth. He was very grounded in that sense and very grounded in his home and his family.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, a difficult time growing up. His father died when he was - what? - 6.

PAYNE: He was 6. And yeah - and, also, Malcolm was close to his father, too. I mean, his father used to take him to meetings where he was organizing, and he got to watch his father in action. And so he has an image of his father, you know, being a good speaker, being charismatic, having a strong work ethic. You know, his father used to get up early and wake up the family and do chores around the house before he would go out and take on jobs. And that's exhibited in Malcolm. I mean, Malcolm had an extremely strong work ethic throughout his life.

INSKEEP: Not that his adult life started well. He moved east, committed crimes, went to prison. It was in prison that he was introduced to an American Muslim sect, the Nation of Islam. He emerged to become the popular spokesman of the group leader.

Is he someone that we can think of as reinventing himself two or three times in his relatively short life?

PAYNE: I see it as more evolving. When you know better, you do better.

INSKEEP: He evolved beyond the Nation of Islam, too. We mentioned Marcus Garvey, the activist his parents followed, who spoke of Black pride and also of separation. The Nation of Islam advocated a more extreme separation, so much so that its leader explored the possibility of working with the KKK.

PAYNE: Malcolm is not happy about that. But he's not the leader of the Nation of Islam. But this is where he starts to see that they're different. And this Klan situation really starts the rift between him and Elijah Muhammad.

INSKEEP: Well, how would you describe the evolution in his thinking in the final months of his life, then?

PAYNE: Well, he was not endorsing separation. He said we can't - if we're going to live in this country, we have to interact with the larger society. And he was even espousing voting during the last years of his life, using our voting bloc to be our power, because what he wanted was to have more impact with having us thrive in society. And you can't do that if you're not going to be a part of society.

But Malcolm then - he's going abroad. He goes on his Hajj. He's connecting up with African countries. He's going to the Middle East. He's going to Africa. He's going to Europe. But in all these places, he's learning about struggles in all these different places. And what people are telling him is that they identify and they feel solidarity with the struggles of Black people in America because they have similar struggles, although their struggles are basically on class issues, specifically class issues, whereas we're race and class. So Malcolm is listening to that, and he's starting to evolve again. He hadn't fully evolved on that because he's killed.

INSKEEP: Tamara Payne on the unfinished life of Malcolm X. Her father, Les Payne, died with an unfinished book on Malcolm X, which she completed and which won the National Book Award. It's called "The Dead Are Arising."

Tamara Payne, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

PAYNE: Thank you.