After her father died in 2018, Tamara Payne was left to deal with more than one kind of grief: the sorrow a daughter feels for the loss her father, but also the pain of knowing that her father wouldn't be around to see the success of his final book, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X.
"That was actually the first thing I said," Tamara acknowledges. "I said, 'it will be published, and he's just not going to be here for it.' And that was really upsetting to me. And still is." The sentiment is one that anyone who has lost a loved one can relate to. But it really hits home when you learn that this book was the final work of the inimitable journalist Les Payne, and had been in progress for close to thirty years.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Les Payne was the co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, and the editor of Newsday, leading the staff of the paper to win an additional six Pulitzers. He was a remarkable man, an icon and hero to many — but to Tamara he was "just Dad."
With a background in real estate and teaching, Tamara always had an avid interest in writing and editing. So when her father asked her to join him working on his book about Malcolm X as head researcher, she jumped at the opportunity. It wasn't long before she was receiving a master's course in journalism, from research, to interviewing, to following leads.
But perhaps the most important part of her journalistic process came in finishing the book; after her father passed, she felt it was her mission to preserve his voice within the pages of the book on which he had spent twenty-eight years. She succeeded, and then some: the book went on to become a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
So, how does this book differ from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored by Alex Haley, or the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention? It's all about context.
"Malcolm has always been presented to us in a vacuum: fully-formed and angry," Tamara says. "So, here is an opportunity to look at Malcolm as a human being. With a family."
Where other biographies have put them as a sidenote to Malcom's work as an adult, Malcolm's family is a touchstone for The Dead Are Arising. The Paynes use Malcolm's parents — his father, from Georgia, and his mother, from Grenada, both proponents of Garveyism — to position the attitudes and values that defined the civil rights activist.
"You get to see a more nuanced version [than how] Malcolm has been portrayed by the media," Tamara asserts.
Malcolm's family isn't where the context for his life and mores ends. It's also vital to take a close look at the environments of racism that surrounded Malcolm throughout his life — a lesson that doesn't just serve us for The Dead Are Arising, but for our current national reckoning with centuries-old systemic racism.
So, what does Tamara have coming up next?
"I'm looking forward to having more discussions about the book when people read it, and hearing their responses to the information in here," Tamara tells me. "This is the part that my father would have loved. He lived for this kind of stuff — engaging with people for this kind of information. I think there are a lot of lessons in here that we can learn about ourselves."