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 Jail 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.

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 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 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 Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground (1994).