A review of “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” – Ayisha Osori

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
by Les Payne and Tamara Payne 
Penguin, 612 pp., 2021

In 1964, Malcolm X left his meeting with President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, disappointed.

Understanding the interconnectedness of blacks everywhere due to racial superiority theories, Malcolm X, sought an African leader, from the crop of newly independent states, to raise an objection to the racial discrimination policy of the United States at the United Nations (UN). Kojo Botsio, Ghana’s foreign affairs minister explained: “We don’t like what is being done to the African Americans, but it doesn’t seem wise to raise, in the UN, that sort of thing. Meddling in U.S. internal affairs would invite other countries, including the United States, to interfere in the affairs of Ghana.”

In a testament to the evolution of non-interference theories, South Africa, 60 years later, is trying to protect Palestinians in Gaza through the International Court of Justice.

Malcolm Little aka Malik Shabazz aka Malcolm X died 59 years ago on February 21 1965 at the age of 39 but lives on in the best way, through his ideas. In some way, those ideas seem prophetic, but maybe only because little has changed about class, oppression and capitalism; ‘Don’t let American racism be legalized by American dollarism’, he counseled.

In the current age of polarization and dogmatic devotion to our beliefs and ideologies, X’s comfort with reviewing his positions as he became more informed, travelled and read is a model for today. He went from being a champion for the rights of 22m African Americans, to understanding that, for revolutionaries everywhere, capitalism was the common enemy, class was the unifier and ubuntu required solidarity across boundaries. This was a man who a year before he shared these evolving thoughts, espoused the Nation of Islam’s pseudo-religious teachings of racial extremism.

The ideals of Pan-Africanism and global solidarity that X dreamt of are manifesting increasingly, particularly post global protests against the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the war on Palestinians. He knew too, that Zionism was a dangerous form of colonialism and imperialism with consequences for Africa. Geo-political alignments are being redrawn and contested yes, but there is little evidence that today’s Africa Union would take a different position than the Organisation of African Unity did in 1964 when they passed a watery resolution in response to his advocacy that if South Africa’s apartheid was not a domestic issue, then ‘American racism is also not a domestic issue’. These double standards in intervention persist and blacks are still discriminated against everywhere.

Malcolm’s upbringing, short as it was, lays to rest the nature vs nurture debate – it’s both. Upbringing is powerful and so are experiences and internalizations. The ease, if one could call it that, with which ‘Red’ and his siblings navigated pervasive racism, including how they did at school and work, owed itself to the influence of their Garveyite parents. Malcolm was taught to look everyone in the eye and know that he was not inferior to anyone. But did Garveyism program X and his siblings for the Nation of Islam (NOI)? While it is a fair question to ask, the answer is complex. Their need to belong and believe in something larger than themselves, that did not require the suspension of logic and/or the acceptance of inferiority would surely be as strong as the desire to distance themselves from centuries of violent slavery, dehumanizing discrimination and Christianity, as the religion of white supremacists.

The first line in the Quran as revealed to Prophet Muhammad starts with Iqra – “read” and Malcolm, largely a self-educated man, had always read widely, but in his final months, his thinking about education and the public role of women, post his membership of the highly patriarchal NOI, shifted. ‘I noticed the country is as advanced as the women are…’ He began advocating for more education for women in the Muslim world, worrying, not just about access but about quality and content. No one who reads is beholden to the system… but it depends on what you read.

His thinking is relevant today in northern Nigeria, Afghanistan etc. where the fear of indoctrination contributes to the reasons for keeping children away from ‘western education’ without the requisite investment in a wholistic ‘Islamic education’ including science, mathematics, astronomy and literature. As X observed, ‘They keep the people narrow minded because they themselves are narrow minded.’

Viewed from that perspective, the African Union’s theme for 2024, Educate an African fit for the 21st Century, is noble – and should run for a decade or two and include a complete overhaul of our curriculums with a focus on the type of black, African positivity indoctrination Mr. and Mrs. Little gave their children.

The book does little justice to his relationship with women. His abandonment of his mother, tied to his guilt at his complicity in her mental deterioration set the tone for his association with women. As a teenager, hurting from the racism that broke his family apart and living a life beyond his years, he comes across as opportunistic in his engagement with women. But that cannot explain the single direct reference from him about his wife in the book on the day he was killed: ‘you know better than to tell her anything’, he says to a colleague who left a message for Malcolm with Betty Shabazz. If it is a ploy by the authors to get the curious to read more about his life, it works.

X was a great organizer – he knew how to build communities in the best way: door to door, one small meeting at a time woven with collective, symbolic activities. NOI called their proselytizing to African Americans, ‘the dead are arising’, ironic considering the hypnotic nature of religion.  What forces of society could make someone as sharp as Malcolm believe that Wallace Fard Mohammed from Detroit was Allah? But the dead are arising is still apt today, speaking to the awakening that billions of people need about the nature of current societies and our place in the world. A good start, at least for Africans, would be including works on Malcolm X in school curriculums.


***Ayisha Osori is the author of Love Does Not Win Elections. She is a awyer, international development consultant, columnist and politician known for her work on good governance, gender equality, women’s economic and political participation and ending violence against women in Nigeria.

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