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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

The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 The X file By Jeremy Taylor Michael X: A Life in Black and White, by John L. Williams (Century, ISBN 978-1-846-05095-4, 288 pp) On 22 February, 1972, police in Trinidad dug up a body in the gardens of a burned-out house at 23 Christina Gardens, Arima. The victim was a man — “a brown-skinned person wearing green pants,” according to the gravedigger — whose neck had been slashed with a cutlass. The grave had been covered over with a bed of lettuce. The body turned out to be the remains of Joseph Skerritt, who had been hanging out at the house for some weeks. He was a cousin of Michael Abdul Malik, the man who was renting the house and building a small “commune” devoted to agriculture, education, and revolution; some of its members doubled as the “Black Liberation Army.” Malik — aka Michael de Freitas and Michael X — had recently left in a hurry for Guyana, and the house had burned down the same night. Two days later, another body was dug up. This time it was a white woman, Gale Ann Benson, who had not been seen for more than seven weeks. She was covered with cutlass “chops,” but the fatal wound had been caused by a cutlass blade driven deep into her throat and lungs. There was earth in her lungs, indicating that she had still been alive when the soil began to cover her. Gale Ann was English: her father, eccentric and aristocratic, had been a member of parliament and an inventor. She had been at the commune since the previous October, along with her lover, a handsome black American called Hakim Jamal, born Alan Donaldson. Gale Ann had also changed her name, to Halé Kimga, an anagram of Gale and Hakim. They were keen on changing the world, but had no money and were running out of ideas. Hakim was close to the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers in the United States: he had left a trail of white celebrities swooning over him, including the actresses Jean Seberg and Vanessa Redgrave. He said that he was, literally, God, and Gale Ann believed him. Hakim had bonded quickly with Malik. Gale Ann had not been best pleased with his waning interest in her. But no one had seen her since 2 January: it was thought she had gone away. Hakim himself returned to the US on 20 January, five weeks before the first grave was discovered, along with his sinister sidekick Kidogo. Of Michael X’s two other lieutenants at Christina Gardens, both Trinidadians, one — Steve Yeates — drowned in mysterious circumstances on 3 February; and the other, Stanley Abbott, fled to Tobago, apparently in terror, and stayed there until he returned to Trinidad on 24 February and spoke to the police. In Guyana, Malik heard about the discovery of the graves. He changed his clothes, shaved his beard and hair, and set off for Brazil. He claimed later that he could never get a fair trial in Trinidad; he would be the automatic scapegoat for anything that had happened, even though he was totally innocent. He was hauled back to Trinidad, where he behaved like the celebrity he believed he was. He was tried for the murder of Joseph Skerritt, found guilty and sentenced to death. After exhausting almost every possible ground for appeal, he was hanged in the Royal Gaol in Port of Spain on 16 May, 1975. It was a rush job: his lawyers were cooking up a final plea of insanity. He was never tried for the murder of Gale Ann Benson. According to evidence at the two murder trials, graves had been prepared in advance for both Skerritt and Benson, who had been brought to the gravesides unsuspecting. Benson asked what the hole was for, and Stanley Abbott replied “It’s for you,” and jumped into it holding her neck so that the “professional” Kidogo, specially imported from the US, could to get to work. But Kidogo turned out to be incompetent with a cutlass, and Benson fought back until Steve Yeates jumped into the hole, placed the sharp end of a cutlass against her throat and drove it down hard into her body. The grave was filled in, and the men got on with their day: no one else at the commune suspected what had happened. In Skerritt’s case, it was Malik himself who stood in the hole and ordered “Bring him!” Again it was Abbott who took Skerritt by the neck and jumped with him into the hole, where Malik held him face down by the hair and sliced the cutlass across his neck. He climbed out and started to fill the grave with stones. But Skerritt wasn’t dead either: he managed to get up and stumble across the bottom of the grave. Malik then smashed his head with a large stone and Skerritt died saying “I go tell! I go tell!” His mother was informed that Joe had had to go abroad suddenly. 6

The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 Malik, born in 1933, grew up in the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont as Michael de Freitas, “Red Mike.” His mother was a black Barbadian, obsessed with colour: white was good, black was bad. His father was a white (or whitish) “Portuguese” who absconded before Michael even knew him. His mother remarried, but his stepfather saw him as simply a “red bastard.” He lived mostly with relatives, eight people crammed into three rooms. In due course he dropped out of school and went to sea, winding up in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay and later, in 1957, London’s Notting Hill. By that time, London had been absorbing black immigrants for a decade and was in a panic. Jobs and accommodation were hard to get. The unhinged Conservative politician Enoch Powell was having visions of blood flowing like a river. The “Notting Hill riots” were just ahead. The sadness, laughter, and frustration of the West Indian community was captured in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, published the previous year. The (white) English journalist Colin MacInnes remembers Michael as short, stocky, soft-voiced, eloquent, crafty, and seductive; and also, one suspects, capable of violence and duplicity. He is highly intelligent and, when speaking off the record, lucid and sardonic . . . however mixed his motives may be, however ambitious and potentially unscrupulous, he is a creative man of undoubted personality, will, and ultimate seriousness. John Williams calls Michael a “born hustler.” He was into scams of various sorts, small-time pimping, gambling, drugs, worthy-sounding charities which never materialised. He could play the tough gangster, or he could be gentle, charming, and sociable (though one of Williams’s interviewees says “I wouldn’t like to have been on the receiving end of any bad shit from him”). As the years went by, Michael extended his repertoire, bouncing from one role to another: small-time crook, community leader, party-lover, enforcer, idealist, pragmatist, playboy, national Black Power celebrity. He transformed himself into Michael X after meeting Malcolm X in London, and into Michael Abdul Malik when he converted to Islam soon after. He became an expert in extracting funds from the wealthy, especially “white liberals” sympathetic to the cause of the month or buying remission for ancestral sins. He became a celebrity. John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Muhammad Ali, Dick Gregory, and Malcolm X all spent time with him. There was an eagerness among the new wave of black Britons for some kind of political organisation, and there was an even greater eagerness among the British media to identify a black figurehead to feature in news stories about the race problem. Michael’s visibility, backed up by his existing reputation in the ghetto, began to push him to the fore. The newspapers came back for more lively — if factually dubious — quotes, and gradually more serious political figures began to get in touch with Michael to discuss this new movement of his. Michael spent more than thirteen years in London, including a couple of jail sentences and another stint as a seaman. “No one would condone the violence that he became involved in at the end of his life,” Williams writes, “but [in London] there was . . . a sense that here was a life full of potential that had become twisted up.” Michael wasn’t just “bad or fraudulent or [an] insincere Black Power leader”: he was “shoehorned” into “ghetto rackets,” and later into pretending to be a Black Power leader, because English racism left him no choice. Of the many people Williams interviewed for this book, those who had been in serious politics in the 1950s and 60s had no time for Michael, because he “used Black Power politics as a hustle, a way of making money.” But more artistic types, especially as the “counterculture” of the late 60s warmed up, saw Michael quite differently: the driving force of the movement was fun and play, as Williams observes, and Michael, with his constant image-changing, wildly chasing new ideas, was accepted as part of the scene. In this spirit, Williams takes seriously the more respectable projects Michael was involved in: a community school, a legal assistance programme, development of the Notting Hill Carnival, rent reduction. He understands why Michael would have worked with the legendary slum landlord Peter Rachman, another English hate-figure. Rachman too was an immigrant survivor, traumatised by experiences in the Second Michael de Freitas transformed himself into Michael X after meeting Malcolm X in London, and into Michael Abdul Malik when he converted to Islam soon after. He became an expert in extracting funds from “white liberals” 7

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