Earlier this year, I was completely swept up in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and that led me to want to learn more, so I picked up this new biography (and winner of the 2020 National Book Award and 2021 Pulitzer) by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Les Payne had been working on the biography for years when he died in 2018, and his daughter, researcher Tamara Payne, completed the work.
The biography is built on interviews with people who knew Malcolm or who were involved or adjacent to events in his life. At times, the authors note where the historical record and interviews diverge from the Autobiography. Most of these instances were questions of emphasis, rather than massive differences in the factual record. None were so significant as to render the Autobiography unreliable, in my opinion. In fact, if you’re going to read only one book about Malcolm X, I’d recommend the Autobiography over this. The writing is better and the insights into human nature more profound. (I found the writing in this book sometimes too repetitive, and there were a few times where I though I might be seeing the seams between two authorial voices.)
Where this book excels is in putting Malcolm’s life in context and in shedding light on events that Malcolm was silent about. The context comes in the lengthy discussion of the founding of the Nation of Islam. Alex Haley’s technique in the Autobiography didn’t really leave room for this kind of analysis. Although we discover as readers how the Nation’s teaching diverge from traditional Islam along with Malcolm in the Autobiography, most of the critique centered on the actions of Elijah Muhammed, rather than on the entire belief system.
One of the most startling actions on the part of Muhammed which Malcolm doesn’t discuss but which the Paynes describe in some depth is the attempt to forge a partnership with the KKK. This began when the Klan approached Malcolm about meeting, a meeting that Muhammed encouraged in hopes that the Klan would help the Nation of Islam start their own separate state. The Paynes use this incident as a jumping-off point to discuss the differences between the Nation of Islam, which advocated racial separation, and Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, who advocated racial harmony. The Paynes suggest that this meeting, along with the revelations about Muhammed’s personal scandals discussed in the Autobiography, contributed to Malcolm’s disenchantment with his leader and his decision to leave the Nation. It is interesting that Haley and Malcolm did not include this in the Autobiography, but it may have been too recent and too explosive for the era.
The book also goes into more detail about Malcolm’s assassination than the Autobiography, for obvious reasons. A great deal about the assassination is still unknown, and the Paynes identify two men as assassins who were never arrested. This claim was not original to them, but I was surprised to see them naming names so bluntly (Even though the case against them is strong, it’s depicted here as a matter of historical record, rather than an alleged likelihood.)
Although I think Autobiography of Malcolm X is better as a work of literature, I appreciated how this filled in the gaps in my knowledge. It’s not a work of hagiography, but one that acknowledges the man’s remarkable gifts and sometimes serious flaws and puts his life in context.