6 months ago

The Caribbean Review of Books (New vol. 1, no. 19, February 2009)

A sample of the new CRB, as published by MEP until 2009


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 This is essentially a revisionist biography. John Williams doubts whether Malik was quite the satanic figure he was later made out to be. He questions the reliability of the Trinidad trials, and is not convinced that Malik was guilty as charged World War, and had made a huge success out of property scams. What’s more, he rented to social rejects — poor black families, prostitutes — even if this wasn’t purely out of charity. He was someone Michael could understand. Williams thinks that Michael’s second jail term was the turning point. He had heard Stokely Carmichael at a rally, and was asked to stand in for him at a meeting in Reading the following day, since Carmichael had been advised to move on. Michael got the gist of the Carmichael message without the oratorical skill: a white man laying a hand on a black woman should be killed, he announced. He made sure of hostile press coverage by calling the journalists present “white monkeys.” He was charged and convicted under the new Race Relations Act (which was supposed to protect minorities from white racism) for inciting racial hatred, and was sentenced to a year in jail. Unwisely, he had turned the courtroom into a sitcom, playing the fool and provoking the judge in true countercultural spirit. Michael’s response [to the verdict] was once again weirdly contradictory, as if he saw himself as a participant in a play rather than in an actual court case, one which was about to result in him going to an actual prison . . . he showed no emotion at the verdict, but addressed the judge with the following distinctly heated words: “I was speaking at Reading about black justice and white justice. You represent white justice and you have shown how it is you work out that, so my people know how to deal with you from now on.” Williams thinks that the sentence was vindictive, and that the subsequent experience of prison and the ugly racism flourishing inside hardened Michael into something different and dangerous. It tipped him over the edge into paranoia, megalomania, a bitterness so deep that it became murderous. He suggests this accounts for the disaster of Malik’s last big London project, the Black House on Holloway Road. It was supposed to be a broad-based black arts and welfare complex — education, canteen, supermarket, accommodation — but turned out to be more of a commune run by Malik, with strict rules (no alcohol, no interracial sex), trials and “sentences” for violations, and blatant criminal projects. Malik told an interviewer: “If I feel I want to kill my brother, that’s my business . . . It’s a family matter and we take care of family matters.” It all came crashing down when Malik disciplined an unco-operative businessman, subjecting him to a mock trial and parading him around the Black House with a genuine spiked slave collar around his neck. Police, charges, a looming trial at London’s Old Bailey. The game was over: but Malik was not going back to jail, not for anyone. He resigned from everything, and headed for Trinidad. Somewhat peeved not to be greeted as a revolutionary leader in Port of Spain, he retreated to Arima and started setting up his commune and his Black Liberation Army in a desirable suburban development called Christina Gardens. Joe Skerritt was Malik’s cousin, a drifter from Belmont with no big role at Christina Gardens. So why was he killed? At Malik’s trial, the explanation was that Skerritt had refused to cooperate in a lunatic plan to steal weapons from a police station. But Malik had told his inner circle that a hole would be dug for him the day before Skerritt even knew about the scheme. It was claimed that Malik finished off Skerritt by smashing his head with a large stone: but the medical evidence only showed the cutlass slash. Malik’s defence lawyer failed to exploit these inconsistencies, and had Malik make only a vague unsworn statement from the dock. For Williams, this raises reasonable doubt about the facts. Perhaps Skerritt had found out about the Benson murder (or Malik thought he had); or perhaps Stanley Abbott was the real culprit and was saving his neck by blaming Malik. Williams mentions local rumours of drug pushing and gay sex, and an anonymous phone call to the Bomb newspaper claiming Skerritt was not meant to be killed, only beaten up. There are unanswered questions. Williams has reservations about the second trial too, the one dealing with the killing of Gale Ann Benson, which took place in July 1973. According to Abbott, Malik had ordered and planned Benson’s death because she was putting Hakim Jamal under stress, and it wasn’t appropriate for him to be with a white woman in his new Black Power role. An air ticket 8

The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 to London wasn’t enough: Malik said “I want blood,” and everyone else followed his orders because they were frightened of him. It was a messy, botched killing, and there would have been blood everywhere by the time Kidogo and Yeates finished with Benson. But there was no mention of blood-soaked clothes, Williams notes: the men just went back to work. Also, Benson had a human fingernail in her throat (a detail not mentioned by anyone else): whose was it? And what about Hakim Jamal, who was not at the scene but who reportedly had long fingernails? Is it credible that he knew nothing of the killing, and accepted Gale Ann’s disappearance without question? He was questioned by police, but not charged. Williams thinks that the whole truth has not been told. The evidence produced at Malik’s trial is “hard to credit.” The prosecution case depended heavily on Stanley Abbott’s story, and Abbott could have had good reasons for portraying Malik as the killer. Malik’s notoriety alone meant that every potential juror in Trinidad would know about him; whether he was even sane was a fair question. A better defence counsel might have pursued all these points and established reasonable doubt. As for motive, perhaps Malik suspected that Benson was a spy planted at the commune by the English (he had found her looking though his papers). The FBI might have engineered the killing to discredit Malik and Hakim and thus the Black Panther connection. Maybe the mysterious Kidogo was an agent provocateur: he was never charged or returned to Trinidad. One might add: perhaps, in Benson, Malik was killing whiteness. Strange events overtook most of the other players. Steve Yeates drowned (or drowned himself, or was made to drown) at Sans Souci. Hakim Jamal was shot to death in his apartment in Boston. Benson’s brother, who had been playing detective on his own in Trinidad, died in a car accident in California. So this is essentially a revisionist biography. Williams doubts whether Malik in his London years was quite the satanic figure he was later made out to be. On the contrary: his impression is of a “bright, creative individual who continually gravitated towards dubious enterprises as a result, at least in part, of racism.” Not his own racism, but other people’s. The obsessions, the vindictiveness, the gullibility, the double standards, of the English. He questions the reliability of the Trinidad trials, and is not convinced that Malik was guilty as charged. In this he diverges sharply from his predecessors. V.S. Naipaul covered Malik’s trial for the London Sunday Times, and in 1974 published a ninety-page essay, Michael X and the Killings in Trinidad. Two English journalists, Derek Humphry and David Tindall, published a biography called False Messiah in 1977. Both works judged Malik harshly, especially Naipaul’s. Being a specialist in puncturing other people’s pretensions, Naipaul warmed to his task and portrayed Malik as a hollow man, deluded from the start and playing a series of roles thrust on him by other people (Naipaul was especially annoyed by “white liberals” with return air tickets in their pockets playing at revolution). Humphry and Tindall thought Malik squandered a golden opportunity to provide leadership for the black community in Britain. Williams leans quite heavily on these earlier accounts (at some points, the texts become remarkably close), and on Malik’s own ghost-written autobiography. He has tracked down many of the people who knew Malik in London and Trinidad, and quotes extensively from them. The book is very readable — sometimes scary, often funny, written with style and with a healthy scepticism and irony. It offers a sense of the human being behind the masks that Malik learned to wear: Naipaul’s severity tends to dehumanise his subjects, while Williams’s cheerful, streetwise cynicism somehow rehumanises Red Mike. The key point is Williams’s emphasis on racism as the driving force behind Malik’s life and death. He’d never been entirely accepted as black while growing up — certainly his mother had done her best to stop him seeing himself as black — but once he came to Britain it had been made clear to him that black was what he was . . . In some ways, then, the whole black-hustler persona he had developed in Britain was a kind of act — a deliberate reflection of the stereotypes that the white world seemed determined to lay on him. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that Michael De Freitas was a man formed by other people’s ideas of him . . . he was continually figuring out what sort of black man they wanted and making himself into that black man, instinctively realising that in doing so there would be plenty of opportunities for profit. How valid all this is perhaps no one will ever know. But on the page it feels possible, plausible. And while it excuses nothing, it does make Christina Gardens just that bit more comprehensible. The CRB supports International PEN’s Freedom to Write in the Americas campaign Throughout 2009, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN will be running a campaign to promote freedom of expression and freedom to write in the Americas. For more information, visit 9

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