TAMARA PAYNE '88: Following the Facts
Tamara Payne '88 is the principal researcher and coauthor of The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, a collaboration with her father - the late Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Les Payne P'88. When Les died in 2018, Tamara completed and published the epic biography. In 2020, The Dead are Arising won the National Book Award. In 2021, the book won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the category of Biography/Autobiography. On June 11, 2021, since this Pulteney Street Survey article was published, Payne's book The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X was announced as the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
BY NATALIA ST. LAWRENCE '16
In the American imagination, author Tamara Payne '88 contends, "it's as if Malcolm X sprung out of nowhere. He has been presented as angry and fully formed." Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, who has a well-documented upbringing and family life, it is "as if Malcolm had no childhood. As if he had no trajectory," she says.
When Les Payne met Malcolm's brothers, Philbert and Wilfred Little, he identified the erasure, and began to ask questions. Who was Malcolm X as a child? What was his family like? He knew, Tamara says, that this information would be powerful in helping to understand the human rights activist. "He also knew that in the process of learning more about Malcolm, we would better understand ourselves," she says. How do our families influence us? How are our lives shaped by the world we are born into?
The influence of family in Tamara's own life is unmistakable. She says she always knew she wanted to be a writer. That she would grow up to write, alongside her father, what NPR has called today's "definitive biography on Malcolm X," may have germinated while listening to the "Ballot or the Bullet" speech or "A Message to the Grassroots" as a child.
"Malcolm X has always been in my life. My father admired him, and he would play speeches at home. I was five or six years old, I didn't know what a ballot was, but when you listen to Malcolm's critique, his analysis and the way he uses language, you learn from him... Malcolm was a master of the English language."
At the Colleges, where Tamara majored in English, her time as a student coincided with a literary boom of Black women writers. "Because of the freedom we had in our studies, I was able to spend a lot of time with Black women writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and so many others," she says. "One of my favorites was, and still is, Zora Neale Hurston."
As she took courses in a variety of subjects and studied abroad in China, Tamara incorporated writing and research into her everyday life. When the opportunity came to work alongside her father, Tamara was ready to accept.
"I knew this was going to be an important story, because no one had heard the story like that before from Malcolm's brothers, [and because of the kind of journalist my father was]" Tamara says, remembering how Les Payne's first interview extracted astonishing details and launched his nearly 30-year journey of writing The Dead are Arising.
Through diligent reporting, Les and Tamara learned about the influence of Malcolm's parents in his life. Followers of Marcus Garvey, Malcom's mother would sing songs to her children in French and cared about their schoolwork. Malcolm's father instilled a strong work ethic in the children. He also took young Malcolm to some of his meetings. They also uncovered information that scholars and reporters had previously described as unattainable, including what happened at Malcolm X and Jeremiah X Shabazz's 1961 sit-down with the Ku Klux Klan and a momentto- moment account of Malcolm X's murder in the Audubon Ballroom.
As the principal researcher, Tamara combed through primary documents, including Malcolm's many journals and letters. She tracked down people in his various circles, including family, friends, classmates, sworn enemies, FBI agents, Nation of Islam figures and political leaders from around the world, and would often join her father during their interviews.
Les would interview people multiple times over the course of several years and would always cross-verify the facts. As Tamara penned in the biography's introduction, he had an "investigative persistence and skill in obtaining truth from reluctant sources." Through his mentorship, Tamara says she developed a journalistic approach to her work.
"You may think you're writing a story that's going in one direction. Then the facts push you in another direction — maybe even the opposite direction. You have to go where the facts go," Tamara says. When writing about Malcolm X, Les and Tamara had to unpeel layers of obfuscation.
"The goal of this book is to put Malcolm finally in the context of American history, and to give recognition to how important he really is," Tamara explains. "After he died, people all over the world were turning to him. Even here, he never left the stage. When navigating white supremacy, people turn to Malcolm, because [of the way] he critiqued it. He gave clear expression to what it was like to be oppressed in such a system. He offered solutions in how to confront it: [gaining] control of economic development, embracing one's own beauty, self-defense. He was preaching that."
As a mentor, Tamara says her father's approach was instructional. "He wanted to make sure I was learning these lessons," she says. "And I wanted to practice this craft." A founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Les Payne's legacy of mentorship includes a current membership base of 4,000 journalists.
As Les' partner on this project, and as his confidant, Tamara encouraged her father to bring his own experience to the book. "He didn't want to insert himself, so I had to really encourage him to put himself into this work like when he saw Malcolm speak in Hartford, Ct.," she says.
In the months since its publication, The Dead are Arising has garnered glowing critical praise. Time Magazine named the biography a "Must-Read." The New York Times Book Review said the book is "brimming with detail, insight and feeling." In the citation for the National Book Award, the judges describe the work as an "intensely human portrait" "written with a dedicated beauty and uncompromising detail."
Amid the reception, Tamara says that, for her, the impact of the biography is personal and political. "To complete the life's work of Les Payne, that was huge, and would not have been possible without the support of my family," she says. "I've heard from people who've read the book who said there was stuff about Malcolm they never knew before. This isn't just Black history. The Great Depression happened and the Great Migration happened: to Americans. The reverberations of those periods happened: to Americans. Not just Black Americans, not just immigrant Americans. We have to put these stories into the context of American history."