Chameleon Of The Counterculture
By Steve Finbow.
John L. Williams, Michael X – A Life In Black & White, Century, 2008
From Michael De Freitas to Michael X to Michael Abdul Malik, John Williams’s lively book is much more than a cut-and-paste biography of a once-famous, now mostly forgotten figure in the history of British Black culture. The best biographies – and this is certainly among them – are social documentaries, charting the biographical subject’s relation to cultural, political and social signifiers within the era in which s/he lived – think Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde or Peter Ackroyd’s Blake.
Williams grapples with the chameleon-like character of Michael X, neither entranced by his subject nor appalled by him. Michael is at once pimp, revolutionary, black man, white man, Muslim, Christian, Jew, gangster, prayer leader, poet, and enforcer. Williams sees all sides of him, never straying into condemnation or applause. With impressive research and compulsive prose, Williams fleshes out a character who is equally beguiling, repulsive, scary, and ridiculous.
Born to a Trinidadian mother and a Portuguese father, Michael De Freitas grew up to be a scaled-down British version of Malcolm X. If he were alive today, the Daily Mail would be lambasting him as a potential terrorist. A convert to Islam, Michael once claimed his RAAS (Racial Adjustment Action Society [Raas – West Indian slang for arse cloth/sanitary towel]) had over 60,000 members. This is no dry, academic unravelling of the facts, but a fascinating and humorous biography of a man who struggled to find his own identity, who fought to escape the confusion of his roots, and strove to find a place for himself in a society that had not come to terms with its own embedded racism.
A list of Michael X’s friends and acquaintances reads like a countercultural roll call: Alexander Trocchi, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, R.D. Laing, Mick Farren, Barry Miles, and Jeff Nuttall. Michael’s political associates included Stokely Carmichael, Darcus Howe, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. Michael had sport and showbiz connections in Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory, Vanessa Redgrave, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Michael was either directly involved in or had close ties with the Wholly Communion, the Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation, International Times, OZ, the London Free School, the origins of the Notting Hill Carnival, the Notting Hill Riots, The Black Panthers, Rachman’s real-estate empire. He was a denizen of shebeens and gambling dens, an attendee of readings and protests; a pimp and a bouncer; a poet and revolutionary; an exponent of Obeah and sigma; and on the periphery of the Profumo scandal. A man who could navigate with ease the treacherous waters of the British class system, who felt at home with black and white, rich and poor, artist and villain, yet could never keep hold of who he really was and what it was he wanted to do. Was he jailbird or messiah? Conman or superstar? Pious man or murderer?
Williams takes us calmly and assuredly through Michael’s Trinidadian upbringing, his life at sea, his move to England, his years as a pimp and dealer, his revolutionary politics, his marriage, family, his affairs, his move back to Trinidad, his subsequent trial for murder and his execution. Williams guides us expertly through the intricacies of the murder trial, the numerous conspiracy theories – Michael was set up by (take your pick) the Trinidad government, the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, the FBI, and/or his own followers.
This biography has everything – it is a cultural essay on race, sex, class and culture, it is a social document on race relations in British society, it is a cracking read involving drugs, guns, sex, and politics. Mostly, it is a very fine example of biography, taking the reader into the life and times of a man who, although an integral part of recent British history, had become more Wolfie Smith than Che Guevara. John Williams’s Michael X – A Life In Black & White manages that rare fusion of research, detachment, and good writing, as it charts the interconnectivity of art, politics, and race in the UK during the period, the history of British Black culture and the alternative-lifestyle theories of the UK Underground. If Michael X were alive today then his many-faceted personality, the thrice-named “Michael,” may have had a chance to recognize his true self.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Finbow lives in London. Allen Ginsberg was once brave enough to employ him. His work appears in many forms and in many places: including McSweeney’s, The Guardian, The Beat, Beat the Dust, Dogmatika, and Stop Smiling. His short stories have been included in a number of anthologies, the most recent being See You Next Tuesday – The Second Coming.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 24th, 2008.