The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

Discussion Points for Bookclubs and Study Groups

After borrowing The Dead Are Arising from the NYPL, I purchased my own copy to facilitate a deeper read. At over 500 pages, this latest addition to the assortment of Malcolm X biographies offers the reader an opportunity to review the life of an American icon – the Black shining prince of the Civil Rights Movement – in richly detailed context. 

I combed the internet for a study guide with which to process this exhaustive recasting of a well-known story. I found a broad range of reviews, but a list of discussion points evaded me. In this vein, I am sharing my own notes and questions in the hope that they may prove useful to another reader.

Weeks 1 & 2

Introduction | Part I 1925 – 1939: 

  • How important is “context” in history? Share an example of a time that learning the context completely transformed the way you interpreted an event.
  • Much of Malcolm X’s work has been described as eradicating an inferiority complex within the Black community. Can you think of any famous statement/ quotation that epitomizes this endeavor?
  • Les Payne’s daughter, Tamara Payne, described observing her father’s investigative process as the “reward of a lifetime” for her. What did you think of the process she described? How does this process inform your reception of the materials found within the book?
  • Who were the key Caribbean figures mentioned in Part I? What aspects of their Caribbean upbringing most shaped their individual experiences within the United States? How did these Caribbean characters collide and become significant in young Malcolm’s life?
  • Page 15 begins the detailed description of the 1919 lynching of Will Brown in Omaha, setting the climate of the nation into which Malcolm would soon be born. What stood out the most for you in reading about the end of Will Brown’s life? Can you think of any stories from the modern era that echo this lynching? Is there any other historic lynching that you found particularly hard to forget?
  • What do you make of the author’s analysis of the driving forces behind the lynching of Will Brown? Can you offer examples of similar stereotypes and fears that linger in today’s societies? 
  • Garvey’s philosophy led to the creation of a flag. What did this flag look like? What was this flag supposed to address? How have these colors been perpetuated since Garvey’s time?
  • Which leaders of the era signified the war of colorism within the Black community? How did these prejudices manifest? Have you ever found examples of colorism within your family or social group?
  • How would you describe Malcolm’s relationship with his father, Earl Little?
  • The system that would come to loathe Malcolm X helped to create him. What happened with Earl Little’s Life Insurance Policy?
  • What did Joe Louis’s 1937 victory signify in the US? Why was this moment so important? Which famous, Harlem Renaissance author said, “I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.”?

Weeks 3 & 4

Part II 1939 – 1946:

  • By this point, Malcolm’s father has been killed, his mother committed to an institution and his siblings split up. Malcolm’s behavior continues to spiral out of control as he deals with this loss of stability. How do the challenges faced by children who live within the foster care system today differ from those of Malcolm’s time? 
  • Malcolm befriended an older teen, John Davis Jr., who had escaped a potential lynching in Mississippi. The author described Mississippi “law and tradition” as supporting the terror faced by African Americans in those days. Can you think of modern scenarios where ‘law and tradition’ are used to uphold injustice?
  • The authors revealed information that upended a belief about the death of his father that Malcolm held until the end of his own life. What was that belief? How might Malcolm’s life have been affected by this shift in perspective, if at all? 
  • Today, it is a running joke when a white person accused of racism defends themselves by claiming to have a friend from a particular ‘minority’ group. How did the authors illustrate the limits of this kind of tokenism – when an individual from a marginalized group gets a pass of narrow acceptance within the dominant culture? 
  • Michelle Obama[1], in her bestselling memoir, “Becoming,” said, in reference to demolishing stereotypes, “I’ve learned that it’s harder to hate up close.” How can we consider Malcolm’s experiences in Mason in light of this idea?
  • Oftentimes immigrants from the African Diaspora have an easier time gaining acceptance and finding professional advancement in the United States, than do African Americans. Are African and Caribbean immigrants the preferred ‘token Blacks’? 
  • Immigrants are familiar with the allure of big city dreams and heavily populate the world’s metropolitan centers. If you have travelled a long distance to live in a big city, which, if any, of the scenes of Malcolm’s introduction to New York, can you relate to? 
  • What was the first major turning point for Malcolm during this period? Why do you think this moment had such an impact on young Malcolm? Have you ever experienced a similar moment in your academic or professional career? 
  • Contrast Ella, ‘Laura’, ‘Sophia’ and the echo of Louise’s presence; as well as the three male characters who comprised “Shorty.” Which of their scenes stood out the most for you? 
  • Finding acceptance is a basic human need. Malcolm described dating a wealthy, white woman as a doorway to the status and acceptance that eluded him and his well-to-do sister, Ella, amongst the elite, Sugar Hill Bostonians. What are some of the issues that arise from this linking of race and color to status in North America and other regions shaped by slavery and colonialism? 
  • Renowned comedian, Red Foxx, described running a side hustle with Malcolm, whom he met at a legitimate dishwashing job. Malcolm stated that due to racial exclusion, most African Americans resorted to illicit dealings to survive. How has the informal economy continued to shape the prospects of the most marginalized members of society to this day? Are the consequences faced by participants in this illicit sector justifiable?  
  • The US military was once majority white. How and why have the demographics shifted since the time of World War II? How did Malcolm evade the draft in 1943? Can you think of any other famous stories of draft dodgers? Do you have any family members who have spent time in the military? Would you object to a loved one enrolling today?
  • A 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. is introduced close to the end of WWII. How did his life to that point, compare to that of the working and hustling 19-year-old Malcolm? What was significant about his experience?
  • Keeping Black people “in their place,” primarily through violence, is a theme that has repeatedly arisen. It is often backed by the notion of protecting white women from the sexual depravity of Black men. These interlinked ideologies are imbued with misogyny and racism. How did they play out in Malcolm and Shorty’s treatment by the justice system? How are they manifested in today’s society? Is it fair to draw links between The Birth of a Nation and well-known current offenders such as “Central Park Karen,” Amy Cooper?
  • The first hint of the Malcolm X who would become a global icon began to emerge during his days of incarceration. What were the conditions, external and internal, that initiated the change? Are there any lessons we can take from this transformation to assist youth who are growing up under precarious conditions?
  • In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke another color-barrier in sport, becoming the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era. Many fields in sport are now dominated by African Americans. What are some of the positive and negative impacts the examples of these elite athletes have upon the Black community?

Weeks 5 & 6

Part III 1946 – 1963:

  • Aside from Garvey’s UNIA, many of the early organizations that took on the mantle of uplift of Black people within the United States, carefully avoided a direct identification with Africa. What was the reason for this? What were some of the methods used to avoid emphasizing this ancestral connection?

 “Irrationality, as noted by journalist I. F. Stone, a scholar of Greek classics and legendary skeptic of the last century, is a core ingredient of all religions of the world”

Payne, Les; Payne, Tamara. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (p. 260)

The NOI came into existence on a circuitous route that can be traced, in addition to other factors, to the vacuum left by Garvey’s imprisonment and 1927 deportation. Which of the details of the founding of the NOI stood out most to you?  

  • What were some of the cultural factors that made the NOI popular in the North and far less so in the South of the United States? Can you think of other movements that lost traction when their geography changed? Can you think of any movements, outside of major world religions, that easily translate across the globe? What were the primary reasons for the success/ failure of these ideologies?
  • In Part III of The Dead Are Arising, it was revealed that not one, but two influential leaders at the forefront of the movement for Black Liberation, held private meetings with white American terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Why did these leaders, a generation apart, embark upon those meetings? How could the publicization of such a meeting become embarrassing? What conditions would make negotiations with “the enemy” a viable option? How have leaders before and after Garvey and Malcolm navigated relationships with oppressive power structures?
  • After JFK won the election, the KKK categorized him as a sympathizer with African Americans and used this impression to double its sworn-in, dues paying membership. We can find similarities to this time in the rise of Trump and MAGA after Obama’s win. How does this observation inform our understanding of racism and power? 
  • The terms racism and reverse racism are often bandied about. Can there be an equivalence of these terms in a nation such as the United States? Why or why not?  
  • In Part III, Malcolm X delves deeper into the reasons for the NOI call for separation. What was his logic? How would you improve on this strategy for creating a more just society?
  • Jeremiah X’s wife, Elizabeth, was depicted by the authors as feeling embarrassed by her husband’s obsequious, ‘Uncle Tom’ routine that he felt facilitated their survival in the south. Have you ever witnessed a loved one being forced to cast aside their dignity for self-preservation? Or have you ever found yourself in a similarly compromising position?
  • James Baldwin[2] called out the hypocrisy of White Americans for their continued oppression of the Black people who were often their own blood relatives. If we search throughout history, the process of defining race is more fluid than we might imagine. How have the language and values surrounding race and miscegenation shifted with time? 
  • Thundering against the more conservative Hartford Times in particular, Malcolm X asked rhetorically, “How can this white newspaper print the truth about black people when they don’t employ a single Negro reporter on their staff?” … It was as if a stranger had pointed out a corpse in the closet that family members had agreed not to talk about. This was also the way many of Malcolm’s revelations went on weightier issues bearing on the history of race relations. In the wake of his campus stops, professors were peppered with a battery of fresh questions about race, usually from aroused students, mostly Negroes, who had been shown their voice.

Payne, Les; Payne, Tamara. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (pp. 392-393)

Some people choose to limit their civic involvement to efforts that yield “concrete” results, such as focusing on policy change. The above example speaks to the power of a less tangible kind of change, the dawning of self-awareness. If you dedicated part of your life to changing the world, which approach would you prioritize? Why?

  • Are there any conditions under which leadership should indulge in a far higher quality of living than the people they lead? How could a lavish lifestyle be rationalized for leadership in the face of hardship for their people? How could it be harmful for a leader to live on equal footing with his/her people?
  • What were some of the key factors revealed in Part III that resulted in Malcolm X’s withdrawal from the NOI?
  • Part III emphasized the FBI’s tactics of surveillance and disruption of organizations established to defend the human rights of African Americans. Which of their strategies did you find most shocking?
  • Much of Part III is devoted to the rise of Martin Luther King Jr in contrast to that of Malcolm X. In spite of their differences, both leaders are held in high esteem today. What is some of the common ground they shared? What makes them relatable to the same audiences today?

Weeks 7 & 8

Part IV 1963 – 1965 | Epilogue | El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz:

  • In Section IV, we witness the coalescence of the forces that guaranteed the assassination of Malcolm X. The NOI was an organization that perhaps had the strongest rehabilitation program for incarcerated African Americans to date. Yet they allowed themselves to prioritize and participate in the murder of the most gifted person to ever enter their ranks, not to mention one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. What were the most damaging weaknesses of this organization?
  • A problematic figure is introduced in Chapter 17 – Gene Roberts, described as a politically indifferent African American man. Roberts earned the trust of Malcolm and those closest to him, while reporting on Malcolm’s every move, directly to the police and indirectly to the FBI. 

History is filled with the Judas archetype. In this case, Roberts wears the hat. What are the typical vulnerabilities of the people who play this role? 

Gene Roberts died alone, a drunk. Is there a ‘universal price’ paid by those who are labelled “Uncle Tom” or “sell out”? 

Was Gene Roberts more of a victim or victimizer?  

“History will absolve me!” proclaimed the leader of Cuba’s Revolution, Fidel Castro. How important is it for people to believe that they are on the right side of history? 

  • An admirer based in Ghana, Alice Windom, pointed out what was most remarkable about Malcolm’s one-on-one engagement: 

“He listens, really listens to all that is said—sorting out, accepting valid suggestions, exploring, criticizing confused thinking—with a working awareness that each person’s thoughts have some value, and that even in disagreement the loser must not feel he has been destroyed,”

What aspects of Malcolm’s personality did you find most admirable? Can you think of examples that showcase these traits from sources outside of The Dead Are Arising? Would you have wanted to meet Malcolm X in person? 

  • Before meeting him in person, Shirley DuBois, the then recent widow of W.E.B. DuBois, was skeptical of Malcolm X based on his representation within the press. What can we take from the charming anecdote about their encounter in light of our dependence on the media, social media and other secondary sources of information to bring us crucial information?
  • After seeing a fictional film like “One Night in Miami” and viewing images of Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X’s family, it is painful to think that these two great figures were kept apart by a row that was invented to serve someone else’s self-aggrandizement. How can we avoid similar pitfalls within our own lives? 
  • Much of this final section is devoted to Malcolm X’s evolving ideology, which occurred in tandem with his foreign travels and continuous reading. What were the critical points of understanding that emerged for Malcolm X during this period? Which aspects of his development resonated the most with you?
  • If you made it all the way to the end, what got you through this book? Did it live up to your expectations? Why or why not?
  • What did you know about Malcolm X prior to reading this book? Did you learn anything new? Did anything you read change your opinion?
  • How do you think the world would be different had Malcolm X’s life not been cut short? 
  • What did you learn about the era described in The Dead Are Arising that you did not previously know? What is the time period in history about which you most enjoy reading, and why?
  • Has reading this book inspired you to do further research on any of the subject material within its pages? 
  • What do you think will be your lasting impression of the book as a whole? 
  • Would you recommend this book to a friend? 

After this in depth consideration of Malcolm X’s life, I leave you with words from one of his most famous speeches made in the final year of his life:

“We ourselves have to lift the level of our community, the standard of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied in our own social circles and won’t be running around here trying to knock our way into a social circle where we’re not wanted. So I say, in spreading a gospel such as black nationalism, it is not designed to make the black man re-evaluate the white man — you know him already — but to make the black man re-evaluate himself. Don’t change the white man’s mind — you can’t change his mind, and that whole thing about appealing to the moral conscience of America — America’s conscience is bankrupt. She lost all conscience a long time ago. Uncle Sam has no conscience.

They don’t know what morals are. They don’t try and eliminate an evil because it’s evil, or because it’s illegal, or because it’s immoral; they eliminate it only when it threatens their existence. So you’re wasting your time appealing to the moral conscience of a bankrupt man like Uncle Sam. If he had a conscience, he’d straighten this thing out with no more pressure being put upon him. So it is not necessary to change the white man’s mind. We have to change our own mind. You can’t change his mind about us. We’ve got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to see each other as brothers and sisters. We have to come together with warmth so we can develop unity and harmony that’s necessary to get this problem solved ourselves.”

Excerpt from The Ballot or The Bullet

Malcolm X,

April 3 and April 12 1964

Cleveland, Ohio

[1] At public events, I focused on making personal connections with the people I met, in small groups and in crowds of thousands, in backstage chats and harried rope lines. When voters got to see me as a person, they understood that the caricatures were untrue. I’ve learned that it’s harder to hate up close.

Obama, Michelle. Becoming (p. 270). Crown. Kindle Edition.

[2] Author James Baldwin, who would spend a session at Elijah Muhammad’s dining room table the following year, turned the race mantra question on its ear. Marrying your daughter is not the fear, he retorted. We have been marrying white men’s daughters for a very long time. It is your wife’s daughter that is your concern.

Payne, Les; Payne, Tamara. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (pp.333-334). Liveright. Kindle Edition. 

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