Michael X: A Life in Black & White by John L. Williams
a review in black and white by William Levy
(London: Century/Random House, 2008)
Trade paperback, 287 pp., £11.99
This excellent book is likely to become the standard, approved biography of Michael X. It deserves to be so.
John L. Williams has exceeded any expectation to produce a rich and fair portrait of a complex individual. Well-written with a pulsating narrative thrust, almost exhaustively researched, A Life in Black & White nimbly locates Michael in the series of tragic-comedies that was his life. Williams does contextualizing with aplomb. We view Michael de Freitas becoming Michael X morphing into Michael Abdul Malik. During each of these Apollonian/Dionysian epiphanies, going-with-the-flow as well as picketing-the-zeitgeist–in sunny Trinidad during the Forties, hard-working Tiger Bay, Cardiff in the Fifties, London’s hip Notting Hill in the Sixties, with family and fellow immigrants, with poets and revolutionaries. Each chapter of Michael X: A Life in Black and White is dripping with sex, with celebrities and scattered with salacious anecdote. Everyone has a story to tell. And, there are still more stories untold. A few of my drool favorites. The time Jean-Luc Godard approached Michael to play a lead role in his film One plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil). Also, when Michael together with Muhammad Ali had an audience with the King of Saudi Arabia. And, of course, the real account about the time Michael liberated the files of IT (International Times) at knife-point.
To be expected, though, from all the creeps, cowards and commies, shysters, schmucks and shlemiels who inhabited Swinging London’s messianic mind spray, memory becomes with some the servant of wish, denial, pre-Alzheimer symptoms. What Diane di Prima identified in the opening verse of her poem Recent Boring Literary Pastimes:
missing dead poets
dishing dead poets
wishing He had or hadnt fucked them
pretending He had when He hadnt
pretending He hadnt when he had
One of the charming aspects of this biography is how the author absorbs the personae of his subject. It is almost method acting. John Williams, like Michael Abdul Malik, seems to be comfortable everywhere far and near, with anyone high or low. This also leaves him open to being unnecessarily impressed by appearances and cheap chic, eating fallacies and swallowing too much false witness from a self-confessed police informer, the Iago of his generation, at the Groucho Club. Might this book have been even better still if the author spent time pursuing his inquiries seeking clues through the Freedom of Information laws of America? Why has the British government classified its Michael X files and frozen the release of all papers about him until 2054? We’ll never know.
Everyone is innocent – so the wags say – until investigated.
In writing about the last days of Michael X, when he was in jail in Trinidad, on death row, and waiting to be executed by hanging, the author, John Williams, describes two different groups of his supporters. Moreover, a split among Michael’s defenders between the pragmatic and the utopian. The former, Williams claims, was the American Committee to Save Michael X, a roll call of the grandstanding liberal left–Kate Millett, William Kunstler, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem–who knew neither Michael nor the psychedelic London scene he had conquered. Biographer Williams calls these the “pragmatists.” They started a quarrel with Michael’s British supporters, his personal hanging-out friends, doobie brothers, fellow conspirators in life and literature, who Williams dubs the “utopians.” He writes:
The later group was led by John Michell, Michael’s old Notting Hill cohort, now a student of flying saucers, and Bill Levy, once editor of IT and now editor of radical porn mag Suck. Michell and Levy alienated the Americans by producing a bizarre booklet in support of Michael’s case that combined random snippets of Michael’s poetry and prose, mostly taken from IT, with even more random illustrations of interracial couplings between black men and white women. One of these was an ill-drawn cartoon of a black [sic] man dying on the gallows while a white woman impales [sic] herself on his erection. Underneath there’s a quote from Kate Millett that runs: ‘It’s the hideous combination of racism and sexism that permits these trials to happen.’ Millett, unsurprisingly, thought the cartoon was both racist and sexist.
Looking at the death orgasm cartoon, now as I write this, I find myself bemused anyone would mistakenly observe the man pictured was either black or Negroid.
You tokin’ there good stuff, mon?
Also the woman, standing tiptoe on a stool with one leg, her other drawn up far as the man’s elbow, arms on the man’s shoulders, I would say, was leveraging her vagina onto the last erection of a hanged man. Maybe a last chance to make a baby. Maybe it’s Christ on the Cross with Mary Magdalene. Williams by using the word “impales” abridges everything into a sword and sandal romance.
What is the background to this story?
Artist unknown, the illustration was reproduced from the original drawing I discovered at the Cabinet of Monsieur Bernard at Librarie Palmurgerie, on rue Dauphin, Paris. It was placed together with feminist Kate Millett’s line in Souvenir Programme for the Official Lynching of Michael Abdul Malik: With Poems, Stories, Sayings by the Condemned—Fully Illustrated. Edited, and with biographic notes by William Levy and John Michell. Typeset, designed and printed by John Nicholson at The Cokaygne Press, Jesus Terrace, Cambridge, England in November 1973. (The book was the front-page story of the Berkeley Barb, right before Christmas 1973 and large excerpts from it featured inside.) After commissioning Souvenir Programme for the Lynching of Michael Abdul Malik, Compendium Bookshop on Camden High Street, London took umbrage with this same drawing. They used a razor to slice out their name from the verso of the title page maliciously damaging all books that came into their hands, excusing themselves with a non-sequitur, accusing the editors of “not being gentlemen.”
This fifty-six-page booklet, made by colleagues of the condemned from various literary and oral sources, was produced to tell a story and move the audience with the human heart of the case. The hanged man with appropriate quote merged the absurdities of gender and race. It was included for shock value. The focus here was to jolt the viewer with the obscenity of injustice as well as suggest the underlying causes of a particular instance of improbity.
At the time the cosmic hustler and poet and gentle mystic Michael Abdul Malik was being held in a tiny cell on death row with round the clock surveillance at Royal Gaol, Port of Spain, Trinidad. According to an early real estate business associate of Malik’s:
Michael’s career as revolutionary black leader Michael X was created for him by the Sunday Times. An article in 1965 offered him to readers as the local version of Malcolm X, and the journalistic fiction created its own reality.
Time Out seconded this view:
He [Malik] was buffeted and shaped by contemporary scenes—newspaper sensationalism, drug mysticism, and alternative cultures—into an imaginary creature for society to tease itself with, and eventually destroy when it grew bored with its fantasy devil.
Michael became a screen upon which the insecure could project their fears and doubts. After being harassed and heralded during the Sixties for allowing himself to become the focus of England’s rising black consciousness–an official bogeyman for native xenophobia, in 1971–Malik was compelled to return to his birthplace of Trinidad, a political refugee of sorts, driven by mendacious accusations of blackmail. Or, black male.
Previously Malik served nine months of a year sentence, partly at Swansea jail, in Wales, where I visited him. He, a black man, was the first person convicted under the new Race Relations Act designed to combat racist discrimination.
The offense? During an otherwise black meeting in Reading, he saw some gate crashing (white) tabloid journalists, papparazzo, standing nervously at the back of the assembly room. He asked the audience teasingly to “please make room and let the white monkeys sit in front.” “WHITE MONKEYS Says Michael X” was the next day’s headlines. Then Michael spoke of self-defense against racially motivated attacks – in a Jabotinsky-like way I thought at the time. The sensationalist tabloid stories continued: “He says kill the whites.”
William Burroughs was one of Michael’s main supporters in this legal process. Deep in debt, living beyond his means in St. James’s with a high-maintenance boyfriend, Burroughs felt this prosecution was being used as a sedition law. A flanking movement by the government to reverse the gains after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial. That his own books, so necessary for income, would be prohibited again.
As King Radio sang in his hit tune Sedition Law: “They mean to licen’ we mouth / They don’t want we talk.”
Naively Michael chose to be his own barrister at the trial–reminding one of the old proverb that he who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. Instead of questioning the credibility of the evidence: there was no audio recordings or even a reliable written transcript of the speech. Bravely Michael’s case depended on aesthetics and epistemology, engaging witnesses with Socratic dialogue, giving the court a philosophy of diction lesson about the differences between the oral tradition and written language. They were not amused.
He did time.
By the time Michael was released from jail, his autobiography had been published. Although it did not sell especially well, the choice of a co-writer was a curious one. His tone had subtle unforeseen consequences in molding the public’s perception.
From Michael de Freitas to Michael X by Michael Abdul Malik (London: André Deutsch, 1968), a Bildungsroman of sorts was ghosted by John Stevenson, a British civil servant. Under the nom de plume Marcus van Heller, Stevenson was also the author of a series of violent sex novels mainly published by Mautice Girodias’ Olympia Press. They had historical settings with titles like The Loins of Amon (in ancient Egypt), Roman Orgy (an erotic retelling of the Spartacus story), The House of Borgia (follows Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia to their doom in fifteenth century Italy). Terror, The Wantons and Nightmare (contemporary novels of social discontent). Cruel Lips and Kidnap (thrillers). Rape and Adam and Eve (psychological thrillers). This was the person who wrote Michael’s “autobiography.” Was the choice Ironic? Appropriate? Coincidental? A Conspiracy? Van Heller/Stevenson excelled in writing in the assaultive mode of erotic fiction. Frustration and anger motivate the characters in his best work.
Fearing yet another frivolous charge resulting in incarceration, Michael fled England and wrote a friend.
I managed to extricate myself from what was clear to me to be another long term of imprisonment. I escaped to Trinidad where I was born and settled in on a little land in Arima where I am now building a home… planning for all our needs. There are seeds and soil. (From Souvenir Programme for the Official Lynching…)
With gifts of money from John Lennon, Yoko Ono etc., he set up Agricultural and Social Programs as part of a plan to build the Holy City. (The Lennons, for example, in a Fluxus media event on the front pages of newspapers, cut off their long hair and auctioned it off to raise funds on Malik’s behalf.) As Michael’s following grew so did the wrath of the government. The Prime Minister of Trinidad during this time was Dr. Eric Williams (no relation presumably to John L. Williams). Incredibly, the Prime Minister Dr. Williams had banned his own book, Capitalism and Slavery, from his own island on the grounds, quite immodestly, that it was too radical and would incite the population.
By then, Michael’s scene was infested by black and white crooks, prophets, radical tourists, becoming a haven and watering spot for hoods, scholars, passing strangers. Among them were demented publicist Hakim Jamal, author of From the Dead Level: Malcolm X & Me. Jamal (formerly Allen Donaldson) purportedly knew Malcolm X. The book is an I-knew-him-from-the-early-days memoir and how-he-laid-his-spirit-on-me. After staying with actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave in London, Jamal arrived in Trinidad together with obliging ex-Tory MP’s daughter Mrs. Gail Benson (née Plugge). According to Williams in Michael X, Hakim Jamal was the first man to give her an orgasm.
Michael went on holiday to visit his wife’s family in Guyana during that country’s Independence Day celebrations. In his absence Malik’s house inexplicably caught fire, allowing the police on the compound. They promptly found the body of a local barber buried in the garden under a lettuce patch. Mrs. Benson’s body was also found in Hakim Jamal’s garden. Both in deep graves. Jamal took off to the States where, a short time later he was silenced, murdered, shot down in Boston.
Who’s to blame? Like mysticism, there are many theories. One thing is sure, there were many deaths. There may have had any number of murderers in this story, and for a wide variety of reasons.
Black Power, De Mau Mau, a Trust of Giant Insects from Another Galaxy, the FBI and Cointelpro, the insidious Lord Arnold Goodman, a powerful Ping Pong Bund, Yoko, MI5 and the Special Branch, Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Or, as the recent feature film Bank Job (dir. Roger Donaldson) suggests, agents of the British Royal Family who wanted to retrieve sexually explicit photos of Princess Margaret in a threesome Michael was alleged to possess.
(As an aside, let me say that if Michael had such pictures I’m disappointed he didn’t send them to me for publication in Suck.)
At any rate, Michael was captured in Guyana then extradited back to Trinidad in a hysterical atmosphere. Successfully demonized by the local press who published a front-page photo of him with horns drawn on it, with the caption: Here the Devil Person! (Portraying one’s rivals as the Horned God, or Fallen God would be a useful area of iconography studies. Two examples: A horned “Moses Expounding the Law of Unclean Beasts” from Bury Bible, Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, 1130-40. Also, a T-shirt seen by this author in Old Town Warsaw 1991, of V.I. Lenin with horns.)
After a show trial, Michael Abdul Malik was convicted of the murder of the local barber Joe Skerritt, his cousin. No evidence was offered apart from the uncorroborated accusations of the self-confessed killers, who claimed they were compliant, deluded youth, merely acting under Michael’s sardonic influence.
There were many futile appeals through the Caribbean courts to reverse the verdict and stay Michael’s execution. In his own words:
They say there will be a decision in about a year. I go to court now about three times a week on average. To travel the eighteen miles to court I am escorted by twenty-four armed Policemen with modern SLRs, self-loading submachine guns. Around the court stand sixty-eight heavily armed uniformed men, inside are twelve more with side arms and ten with riot staffs. (From Souvenir Programme for the Official Lynching…)
This seems like a lot WMDs to guard someone who women thought was “a teddy-bear.” But folks believe any infamy or calumny – sad but true – about someone they envy and Michael had been accused of a grab bag of things. These included immoral earnings from pimping, rent collector for slum lords, inciter of discrimination against whites. Plus, drug dealing, gun toting, non-Marxist deviation, anti-Team separatism, racial impurity for the audacity of having a white father and black mother, demanding money with menaces, bad writing. The ineffable authentic “crime” of Michael’s was sleeping with everyone’s wife or girlfriend. Hardly an “offense” justifying lynching, even though some seem to have thought this proper.
In England where Michael had lived for fifteen years, predictably echoing the Trinidad press, the News of the World published a front-page prison interview under the headline: “I Talk to the Devil Person on Death Row. His words are soft, but his brown eyes keep flashing hate.” During the trial, the Daily Express labeled him “Poor man’s Papa Doc” and “The Notting Hill Messiah who turned to murder.” Michael had become the freak who results when whites attempt to forge a black identity from the spare parts of pop culture. The Sunday Times, which had started Malik off on his career toward the gallows, and libeled him in the interim, finished him off with a series of courtroom articles by V.S. Naipul. (Later these were collected and published with other articles, in a Penguin paperback, as The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad.) Alex Trocchi, whose manifestos Invisible Insurrection of a million minds and sigma: a tactical blueprint profoundly influenced Michael, deplored Naipul’s views in print as “utterly pitiless” and an ”unalloyed condemnation.” Although over time it becomes apparent, that Naipul’s perfidy, this service to many masters, was well invested, of the kind and weight to give him a step-up on winning a major literary award like the Nobel Prize.
Michael remained on Death Row. The case against him still unproved, final petitions of mercy were made to Her Majesty’s Privy Counsel, the court of last resort for the Commonwealth. This was refused. The highest level of punishment was upheld. Too late, there was general repugnance because the Queen, Elizabeth II, head of a state that had abolished the death penalty, virtually signed the order for the execution.
The last telegram sent in vain to Roy Jenkins, the British Home Secretary and known to be a decent man, pleading for compassion for Michael included the following signatories:
Marion Boyars, William Burroughs, John Calder, Eric Clapton, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithful, Jim Haynes, Kit Lambert, John Lennon, Bill Levy, John Michell, Yoko Ono, Alice Ormsby-Gore, Cedric Price, the Hon. Michael Portman, Dan Richter, Nigel Samuel, Feliks Topolski, Alexander Trocchi and Simon Vinkenoog.
These proved, as it turned out, to be Michael’s karmic pallbearers.
While the world was mesmerized, distracted by watching the slow-motion danse macabre of the Fall of Saigon – Michael Abdul Malik, age 41, was exterminated, hung by the neck until dead during the merry month of May, 1975, in Port of Spain. Led by Michael’s wife Desirée, a crowd of hundreds of protesters stood silent witness outside the jail. The New Statesman reported that Malik walked to the scaffold with dignity. Everything that begins as comedy ends as enchantment and/or as a personal appearance inside the hangman’s noose.
Meanwhile. An American-cause-a-month group had seized upon the case of Michael Abdul Malik. A faction of the so-called pragmatists. The Guerrilla Art Action Group, GAAG, formed a committee. Their participation at the Tenth Annual New York Avant Garde Festival took place on a train of Penn Central Cars at Grand Central Station on December 9, 1973. It consisted of placing a “Michael X must not be hanged” poster “on both the exterior and interior of the box car assigned [sic] to us.” (From GAAG: Guerilla Art Action Group, 1969-1976, A Selection. New York: Printed Matter, Inc., 1978.)
When GAAG, appropriately named, saw Souvenir Programme for the Official Lynching of Michael Abdul Malik, however, these supporters of freedom of expression issued another demand. Turning their attention away from the Michael Case, now they tried to gag the editors of this booklet. In a mail art handwritten announcement dated January 2nd 1974 they disassociated themselves from this death orgasm illustration in particular and denounced it as:
self indulgent…sexist (discriminating against women and supporting a male-superior attitude) by coupling Kate Millett’s brilliant statement with an irrelevant, putting women down, drawing.
Putting aside the questions of whether Kate Millett’s statement really was “brilliant” or a barely accurate trendy platitudinous slogan, it should obvious to anyone the hanged-man is getting the worse of it in this representation. Besides, as said before, both John Michell and I agreed, this drawing has panache, what filmmaker John Waters called Shock Value, what Bertolt Brecht named Verfremdungseffekt. After all, a lampoon is, by definition according to the OED, “a virulent or scurrilous piece of satire.” The purpose was to jolt the viewer with the obscenity of injustice. A man was about to be executed. This was not an announcement for an avant-garde art pow-wow.
Belgian born artist Jean Touche, the co-founder of The Guerilla Art Action Group and signatory to the attack on the booklet where this drawing appeared, was soon after ordered to undergo psychiatric examination by the United States Federal Judge for the Southern District of New York. He allegedly sent “kidnap threats” through the mails and perpetrated other disruptive activities at major museums such as releasing “cockroaches onto the dinner table during a banquet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” All these actions were inspired by different causes than Michael’s.
There are few things so pleasing as having ones harassers sanctioned by the lunacy commission.
Williams reports in Michael X that when the author of Sexual Politics came to London in the summer of 1973 to arouse British public opinion in favor of the condemned, Kate Millett was shocked to discover:
The media is happy to say ‘go right ahead and hang him, he’s a mass murderer’… And as regards the sophisticated people of London—reporters, media persons—they are always glad to tell you that Michael was an enforcer for Rachman, had big dogs, gouged the faces of the poor with his Alsatians and so on and so forth.
I’m not shocked or surprised. As the editor of IT, I published several of Michael’s spoken word style musings. As all editors have noticed, most contributors to periodicals wave about their own manuscripts maniacally, few writers promote someone else’s accomplishments, but Michael did. Through him, I met Roy Sawh, Courtney Tulloch, Horace Ové and John Michell. And, I was glad to publish early works by all of them too.
While this was going on, a number of colleagues tried to get me to discontinue this editorial policy. Not surprisingly, these include those who in Michael X: A Life of Black & White were glib pretending to be his “good friend” or an alte Kamerad, an intimate, a confidant.
As a squib on the editorial page, under the headline–“Black Power and IT”– and as a riposte to many of those same criticisms, over forty years ago, I wrote:
People ask me why give space in IT to Michael (X) Abdul Malik and Black Power? The answer is not a simple one. First, I have a deep personal affection for Michael (he turns me on), as well as an ordinary interest any editor has for a fine writer. Second, IT is the only periodical in Great Britain that gives the voice of Black consciousness a responsible hearing. Third, in philosophy as well as tactics I find myself more in agreement with Michael X than almost any other single person with whom I come in contact.
For these reasons, IT will continue to welcome contributions from Michael as well as news of his comings and goings.
But even that is not the whole answer
The answer is in my head.
(From IT no. 20, October 27th —November 11th 1967.)
In the last line–for head, read heart.
Even now, others, connoisseurs in their craft, like the Jungle Fever Birds – see Williams page 209 – they lessened Michael’s claims to life after having found him not bedable material. But back then in the late Sixties, as I recall, one of them released an opéra bouffe, typical of that vibrating time. She believed cannabis could be de-criminalized by her giving BJs to MPs. Although a good time was had by all, when that political hairdo didn’t succeed in influencing Parliament, or anything one iota, she sought to punish Parliament, and everyone else, by trying to commit suicide and failed in that also. Carry On Goon.
Yes; we’ve got to maintain the heaven on earth of ideas, spread apart yet confederated by coals in the heart, an invisible insurrection to build a New Jerusalem, the City of Rejoicing. If we don’t, we become animals, mere soulless barkers. I guess I am counted among the utopians, the loyalists, idealists, an example of those visionary crazies who feel a Kierkegaardian “concept of dread’ when one’s friend is lynched. A ghastly reaction exacerbated by watching everyone being photographed standing around somewhere in the background drinking cocktails, wringing their hands while sitting on them—so to speak. We’ve all seen the images of the smiling bystanders at a hanging. Utopian also, admittedly, in fretting about the future of memory and the invention of mythological pasts in the service of darkness when almost the entire group is prevaricating – scores to settle or reputations to preserve. Missing dead poets. Dishing dead poets.
In spite of much that is unsubstantiated, misleading, inaccurate, John Williams has managed to compose a credible portrait of Michael, his life trajectory, his spirit, the epoch, and an exciting book. In answer to the pata-existential question: Before you can pry any secrets, you must first find the real me…which one will you pursue? Michael X, the book, stalks many of the real selves of Michael, the person, who society had taught to regard race as a species of performance art. Even more, this book views him through the prism of others.
Yet having said that, nobody mentioned Michael’s distinctive sound, because he was, after all, a talking man. Any mournful chant for my departed/eliminated companion Michael would have to include his euphonious calypso accent, his beguiling dulcet voice.
Nota Bene: For the death orgasm cartoon – and other seditions of that ilk – in an art history context. See also “All Things Forbidden: An Illustrated Survey of Political Porn” by William Levy in Exquisite Corpse no. 61, (Baton Rouge, LA: Culture Shock Foundation, Inc., 1997) pp. 32-41.
Moreover, two previous volumes of race-wresting fantasy were based on the life and times of Michael de Freitas/Michael X/Michael Abdul Malik. A proudly anti-Negro novel Guerrillas (1975) by the respected Trinidadian sentimentalist V.S. Naipul and the fabulist False Messiah: The Story of Michael X (1977), a tabloid style in-house cover up by the Sunday Times journalists Derek Humphry and David Tindall. Derek Humphrey went on to write the 1991 best-seller Final Exit and become the founder of Hemlock Society, a right-to-die group.
The NY Times called Naipul’s Guerrillas “probably the best novel of 1975.” Back in Britain, however, Elaine Feinstein, the eminent poet, novelist and translator from the Russian, choose Guerrillas as the Worst Book of the Year because of the author’s undisguised fear of, and disgust for, women’s desiring body.
Michael X the eponymous title of a play about politics in the Sixties by Vanessa Walters (whose novels include Rude Girls) was performed for six nights during November 2008 at the Tabernacle Centre, Powis Square, W11, London. Directed by Dawn Walton, the hour-long monologue was presented by Clint Dyer. The last word goes to John Michell (1933-2009). In an epistle to me about this theatrical event, he wrote:
I went with Jenny, Michael’s daughter, and Desiree [his wife] and two other daughters and a smattering of grandchildren to a play at the Tabernacle about Michael. It was a recitation by an actor in an Afro of pieces written by Michael in the early days, showing him as a radical, ranting leader of black liberation, and fitting him into that popular academic study, Black History. There was a surprising number of young black people there, and I guess they were students of BH. They were shown images of disobliging white landlords, persecution and race riots, with nothing about the sympathies and cultural similarities between us that made the West Indian immigration the happiest one we’ve had. The young blacks at the Tab cheered in the right places but were good-natured, and I did not think they took the grievances imposed upon them by their BH teachers too seriously.
There was nothing about Michael’s later friendships, his acid experiences or the universal idealism he developed. To depict him simply in BH terms is a travesty. He needs to be reclaimed as the white man his father was.