Payne completed her father’s biography of Malcolm X, The Dead Are Arising (Liveright, Sept.), after his death in 2018.
What drew your father, Newsday journalist Les Payne, to this project?
Dad was always interested in Malcolm. He admired Malcolm. But he often said that it was never his intention to write about Malcolm. He thought with the Autobiography and the speeches, that we had everything we needed. But he met Philbert Little, Malcolm’s older brother of two years, and learned things about Malcolm’s childhood that the public did not know. That was the initial draw—finding out what we didn’t know. But it wasn’t just understanding who Malcolm was; it was also understanding the world he was born into.
What was he most excited to learn?
He was extremely proud to get the details of Malcolm’s secret meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in 1961. We all were. Also the story of Malcolm building the Hartford chapter of the Nation of Islam. Dad grew up in Hartford, and saw Malcolm speak there as a college student. It was a real connection for him. In the book’s cover photo, Malcolm is standing in front of the capitol building of Hartford. I was really happy to get that photo—it shows the through line.
What was it like to work as your dad’s researcher?
It was like an apprenticeship. But more than that, we already had a relationship as father and daughter. It only deepened that. We already knew each other, we trusted each other. I mean, I’ve known a lot of this information and wasn’t able to speak on it during these 30 years. Trust me, there were times I wanted to. But I was dedicated not just to the project, but to my father, and to wanting his work to be the best it could be when it was ready to be published. I’m just proud to be in a position to make sure my father’s life work is out there.
What do you hope readers take from the book?
This isn’t Black American history. This is American history. The younger generation will learn about how we got to where we are. It will direct them to incidents they may not have known about, but that are important for them to understand. Particularly the Red Summer of 1919, when Black veterans returning from WWI were looking at their rights as Americans, and were met with a violent backlash. And the Marcus Garvey movement. What Garvey was attempting then, in terms of strengthening Black identity and letting go of this false belief of the inferiority of Black people, is very similar to what young people are attempting now. It will help young people to make those connections, and give them directions where to go to get even more information. Dad would always tell us, “Information is powerful.” But you need to know it’s there.