Eldridge Cleaver Essay - Critical Essays

Cleaver, (Leroy) Eldridge


(Leroy) Eldridge Cleaver 1935–

Black American essayist and editor.

Cleaver was one of the most significant figures of the black protest movement during the 1960s. He is best known as the author of Soul on Ice (1968), a collection of autobiographical vignettes, historical and political commentaries, and sketches of popular culture which at the time of its publication was described by one critic as a "disturbing report on what a black man, reacting to a society he detests … finally becomes."

Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, and later moved with his family to Watts, an all-black district of Los Angeles. While in his teens, Cleaver spent time in various juvenile reformatories for petty thefts and narcotics sales. In 1954, he was convicted for possession of marijuana and sentenced to two and a half years at the California State Prison at Soledad. He completed his high school education in prison and studied the works of such social and political thinkers as W.E.B. DuBois, Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, and François Voltaire. Later, in one of his essays in Soul on Ice, Cleaver stated that in 1954, the year the United States Supreme Court outlawed segregation, he began to form "a concept of what it meant to be black in white America." Shortly after his release from Soledad, Cleaver was convicted of rape and assault with intent to commit murder and was sentenced to a prison term of two to fourteen years. He served the bulk of his sentence at Folsom Prison, where he became a member of the Black Muslims, a religious sect composed of black separatists. Malcolm X, who was at the time an influential leader of the Black Muslims, became a role model for Cleaver. In 1965, while still in prison, Cleaver began writing the essays that were later collected in Soul on Ice, and with the aid of his attorney smuggled several of them to the editor of the leftist magazine Ramparts. In June, 1966 Ramparts published "Notes on a Native Son," Cleaver's now-famous literary attack on James Baldwin. Later in that year—with the support of the editorial board of Ramparts, Norman Mailer, and other prominent literary figures—Cleaver was granted a parole. He took a position on the writing staff of Ramparts and eventually became the magazine's senior editor. While living in Oakland, California in 1967, Cleaver met Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the co-founders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther party was originally formed to protect black citizens against police brutality and harassment in the San Francisco Bay area. Impressed with the party's militant ideology and politics, Cleaver joined the Black Panthers and began touring America as their Minister of Information.

Cleaver gained national attention in 1968 with the publication of Soul on Ice. Initial critical reaction to the book was varied. While the skillful prose and bitter frankness of Cleaver's essays were widely praised, a number of critics contended that his perception of American race relations was extremely narrow and as destructive as that of the system he condemned. Some found offensive Cleaver's use of profanity and blasphemy in Soul on Ice, and many were dismayed by the essay "Notes on a Native Son," in which Cleaver viciously assails the prevalence of homosexuality as a theme in James Baldwin's works and attacks Baldwin personally for his sexual preferences and alleged hatred of black people. Gertrude Samuels accused Cleaver of finding "a sexual reason for hating virtually all social and political aspects of American life." However, many critics lauded Cleaver for his passionate insight into the state of American race relations and hailed him as a promising and powerful writer.

In April, 1968, two days after Martin Luther King's assassination, Cleaver was charged with parole violation following a shoot-out between Black Panther members and the San Francisco police. He spent two months in jail before a California Superior State judge ruled that he was being held as a political prisoner. After his release, Cleaver was nominated as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate for president, but in November he was ordered to return to jail when a higher court reversed the earlier decision. Rather than return to jail, he fled the country and lived at various times in Cuba, Algeria, and Paris. Post-Prison Writings and Speeches (1969), published while Cleaver was a fugitive, offers a detailed presentation of the Black Panthers' political ideology and attempts to eradicate public conceptions of the Panthers as a violent hate-group. Although some critics appreciated Cleaver's candor, most charged that the book contained too many revolutionary clichés and that Cleaver had adapted his language to political fashion. Shane Stevens dismissed Post-Prison Writings and Speeches as "mere propaganda" and charged Cleaver with sacrificing the Panthers' cause for his own self-interests.

In 1975 Cleaver became a born-again Christian and returned to the United States, where he faced a variety of criminal charges. Four years later, in 1979, Cleaver published Soul on Fire, a retrospective work about his involvement and eventual disillusionment with the Black Panthers, his years in prison, and his spiritual and political regeneration. Critics were generally disappointed with the book, noting the absence of the fiery rhetoric and analytical skill associated with Cleaver's earlier writings. However, some welcomed this new position and praised the work as a mature compromise with the forces of authority Cleaver had categorically damned in his previous works. Soul on Fire is often considered a companion work to Soul on Ice, and Cleaver commented that the word "Fire" in the title represents his conversion from a hostile, racist exconvict to a compassionate, patriotic Christian. Some ex-Panther members denounced Cleaver's new political stance and accused him of acting as an FBI informant in exchange for leniency in the courts. He was sentenced to serve 2,000 hours of community service. Upon completion of his sentence in 1983, Cleaver began touring the country as a public speaker and evangelist.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Maxwell Geismar

[Soul on Ice] is one of the discoveries of the 1960s. In a literary epoch marked by a prevailing mediocrity of expression, a lack of substantial new talent, a kind of spiritual slough after the great wave of American writing from the 1920s to the 1940s, Eldridge Cleaver's is one of the distinctive new literary voices to be heard. It reminds me of the great days of the past. It has echoes of Richard Wright's Native Son, just as its true moral affinity is with one of the few other fine books of our period, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and as it represents in American terms the only comparable approach to the writings of Frantz Fanon.

In a curious way Cleaver's book has definite...

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Richard Gilman

[The following essay was first published in The New Republic, March 9, 1968.]

There is a growing body of black writing which is not to be thought of simply as writing by blacks. It is not something susceptible of being democratized and assimilated in the same way that writing by Jews has been. The movement there was, very roughly, from Jewish writing to Jewish-American writing to writing by authors "who happen to be Jews." But the new black writing I am talking about isn't the work of authors who happen to be black; it doesn't make up the kind of movement within a broader culture by which minorities, such as the Jews or the Southerners in our own society, contribute from their...

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David Evanier

The style throughout [Soul on Ice] is pop Leftism, a mixture of sex and revolution characteristic of the New Left around the world…. Horst Krueger describes this combination as it appears in West Germany: "the era of Sex and Socialism. Eros is on the Left and beautiful is our youthful rebellion. Make love and carry the banner of the Vietcong high." Cleaver adds to this a brashly violent note and a sure literary talent….

A Black Muslim who renounced Elijah Muhammed's teachings to join Malcolm X, Cleaver pronounces the white world doomed. Differentiating good white people from bad, however, he sees young white radicals joining Negroes in building a Socialism in the United States that is...

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Shane Stevens

Soul on Ice is a collection of essays straight out of Dante's Inferno. The hell is there, and its name is America. Cleaver takes the reader on a journey down into the bowels of the nation, stopping to explore many of the levels of suffering. What he has to say about the black man in America, about the mystique of the white woman, about black heroes and villains, about Vietnam, and about the whole insane racial fabric of this country is said with freshness and insight and a power of conviction that will frighten those who like their truths diluted. As with Malcolm X, Cleaver's book is a spiritual autobiography. An odyssey of a soul in search of itself, groping toward a personal humanism which will give...

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Julian Mayfield

There used to be a lot of nonsense written about black writers being outside the mainstream of American literature. This was because, for the most part, their work followed the protest tradition, and resisted the fads which sought to obscure the realities of history, economics, and the distribution of political power. Black writers, with varying degrees of success, clung stubbornly to the conviction that the black experience in America was worth exploiting. Now we know that it is worth more than most of us imagined, that it is integral to the American experience, not a marginal back street, and that the nation's survival may depend on how quickly it understands this and changes accordingly.


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Robert Coles

All the essays [in Soul on Ice] deal with racial hurt, racial struggle, and racial pride. Mr. Cleaver is a black man, and he is not going to let either himself or anyone else forget that fact—in case it is possible for an American of either race to do so. Ralph Ellison and even James Baldwin want above all to be writers, and Cleaver says no, that is impossible, that is foolish, and certainly that is wrong.

I am with Ellison and Baldwin all the way, but the author of a book with the stark, unrelenting title Soul on Ice would expect that of me, a reasonably unharassed white middle-class professional man who, really, in many ways had it made from birth. I don't at all like the nasty,...

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Michael Cooke

The movement of Americans of African ancestry to fulfill the vision of a necessary, if unpromised, land boasts its ranks of orators, defenders spiritual and real, legal philosophers and paralegal militants, prophets, and martyrs. So much is to be expected. But is it not strange that this movement has produced no satirist, no one to do for black and white what [Jonathan] Swift did for Ireland and England?… Why is there nobody but the Smothers brothers to whip out the moral dilapidation at the base of what, with choice neutrality, we call "political behaviors and socioeconomic conditions"? (p. 102)

[One] suspects that more than social style now inhibits satire; that might as readily invite it....

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Nat Hentoff

[The following excerpt was taken from an interview with Cleaver conducted by Hentoff for Playboy Magazine.]

PLAYBOY: You have written [in Soul on Ice] that "a new black leadership with its own distinct style and philosophy will now come into its own, to center stage. Nothing can stop this leadership from taking over, because it is based on charisma, has the allegiance and support of the black masses, is conscious of its self and its position and is prepared to shoot its way to power if the need arises." As one who is increasingly regarded as among the pivotal figures in this new black leadership, how do you distinguish the new breed from those—such as Roy Wilkins [of the NAACP]...

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Jack Richardson

The madness takes its toll, but it should be clear, before all critical connection between the black and white sensibility breaks down, that, for the Negro writer, madness comes not in hating the white world but in hating it without style. A lucid rage can be an effective cultural weapon; literary delirium tremens can only bog down everyone's anger. This frenzy to set up an official literary barricade, to uncover symbols and tales which will promote some sort of atavistic tribal unity, can lead very quickly to a crippled art that threatens nothing. In the rush to do away with the racial double consciousness, it cannot be forgotten that art produces its own version of this division and that it has its own standards of...

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Lindsay Patterson

In "Soul on Ice," Eldridge Cleaver's reflections on the plight of American society somehow sounded like those of a prodigiously intelligent man describing a tree though never having seen one. Reading those prison essays, however, you knew that he had read and digested every manual on the subject. The result was, up to a point, brilliant and revealing. Beyond that point, lurked some empty although eloquent abstractions, patently incorrect in their assumptions, judgments and conclusions….

[In his astonishing collection "Post-Prison Writings and Speeches"] Cleaver in freedom has visualized clearly and precisely the trees, as well as the forest.

"The Decline of the Black Muslims" and...

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Harold Cruse

Reviewing Eldridge Cleaver's second book, Post-Prison Speeches and Writings, demands a critical license like that of reviewing the aspects of a man's life which consigned him to purgatory. Moreover, the review itself can offer little promise of comfort and less in the way of advice to the man in question, whose likely response would be: "If I could live life all over again, I'd do the same thing." There is, then, but one legitimate line of investigation, since we already know why the man lived the way he did. This approach would ask two questions, "Why must he do it again in that way, if he could?" and "Is there really no other way?"

But even this tack is not very promising, because it offers...

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James Forest

[Post-Prison Writings and Speeches] is hard reading, not because [Cleaver] has lost his gift for words, but because the cross and nails are so real, as is the unknowing assent to their use by the rest of us. The chase is real, the cruelty is inquisitional, the casualties and deaths paralyze the tongue.

The book is no sequel, in any usual sense, to Soul on Ice. It emerges from a crowded life. The language straddles street and hermitage. The meditations and outrage that Eldridge shares come from immediate crises in which he is always a participant, no matter how hard he attempted to exempt himself beforehand in his apprehension of the Adult Authority and his appetite for some degree of...

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Shane Stevens

[Cleaver's] volume of "post-prison" writings and speeches (a phrase stamped on the book jacket and used as part of the title on the title page, no doubt to squeeze out every last drop of sensationalism) … is sheer polemics. Even worse, it is mere propaganda. Manifestoes, diatribes, threats, exhortations—the whole bag of propagandist tricks is here. Ostensibly to fill a political need. In actuality, to fulfill a simple economic greed: money. No, I'm not blaming Cleaver, although there is much that he can, and will, be blamed for. He apparently did not have much to do with it, now that he is [living in exile in Algiers]. Those who should be blamed know who they are….

During the past year I have...

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To: English Chairman

From: Principal

Re: "Soul of Ice"

Will you kindly respond to the following questions relative to the book "Soul of Ice" which is currently being used by Mr. ____________.

1. Was this book approved by the chairman?

2. Were students requested to purchase this book from personal funds?

3. Did Mr. ______________ consider other books on "black power" before this particular book was selected?

4. Do you personally feel that the objectionable parts destroy the literary value of the book?

The utilization of this book...

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Bayard Rustin

The political transformation of Eldridge Cleaver is one of the most profoundly interesting human dramas of our era. However, tracing his evolution is less my concern than the content and clarity of his thinking. Cleaver is saying many things that badly need saying and that are either not being said or not being said so well.

Cleaver's message is to remind us just how revolutionary the democratic idea really is. His emphasis on the importance of democracy may seem commonplace, but his views are powerful because they are the result of both theory and experience. His passionately felt beliefs have caused him to perceive the importance of turning the clichés of democracy back into ideals.


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Richard Gilman

A little over 10 years ago I reviewed Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice [see excerpt above]…. I said then (and on rereading the book still think) that Cleaver was a gifted writer but one whose particular qualities of rage, resentment and quasimystical aspiration in a context of racial struggle put him outside many of our literary canons. The review led to an agitated discussion … in which I tried to refine and clarify the distinctions I had drawn in the first piece.

The chief one was between what I called writing of a more or less traditional kind that happened to be by blacks (or "Negroes" at the time; that usage still held sway) and writing of a political and ideological cast that was...

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Jacques G. Squillace

[Soul on Fire] projects back to the sixties, when men and women, educators and policy-makers, blacks and whites were caught in a moral bind, demonstrating for human dignity and equal rights. And who better to articulate that era than a notorious black militant revolutionary?

By and by, the book contains all the "whats" the reader may want to know about Eldridge Cleaver. It is a collection of the events of his life that shaped him into the man he was to become…. There is retrospection on the Panther cause, its principles, terminology, possibilities and programs, and the public misconceptions of the Panther organization. There is reflection on the doctrine of Marxism, which Cleaver came to...

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