Eldridge Cleaver 1935–1998
(Full name Leroy Eldridge Cleaver) American essayist and speech writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Cleaver's career through 1998. See also Eldridge Cleaver Criticism (Volume 30).
One of the most vociferous voices of the Black Power movement during the 1960s, Cleaver wrote Soul on Ice (1968), a best-selling collection of autobiographical vignettes, social and political commentaries, and sketches of popular culture in the United States. At the time of its publication, Soul on Ice shocked audiences worldwide with its frank depiction of prison life, interracial relationships, and "what it meant to be black in white America." Born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, Cleaver was raised in the Watts district of Los Angeles. As a teenager he spent time in several juvenile reformatories on charges of petty theft and drug dealing. In 1954 he was convicted for marijuana possession and sentenced to two and half years at Soledad State Prison, where he earned a G.E.D. and studied the social and political philosophies of W. E. B. DuBois, Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, and François Voltaire. Soon after his release in 1957, Cleaver was convicted of rape and assault with intent to commit murder. The judge sentenced him to serve two to fourteen years at Folsom State Prison, where he joined the Black Muslims, a religious sect espousing black separatism that also included among its leaders Malcolm X, whose teachings heavily influenced Cleaver. In 1965, while still in prison, Cleaver began writing the essays that eventually became Soul on Ice, some of which his attorney smuggled to the leftist magazine Ramparts. By the following year, "Notes on a Native Son," Cleaver's notorious literary attack on James Baldwin, appeared in Ramparts. As a result, Cleaver gathered enough support from prominent writers and editors to be paroled in late 1966, and he began writing articles for Ramparts, of which he later became senior managing editor. In 1967, Cleaver met Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, cofounders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which sought to organize the black community against police harassment and brutality in the San Francisco Bay area. Impressed by the group's militant ideology and politics, Cleaver joined them and toured America as their Minister of Information. Meanwhile, Cleaver entered the national limelight upon publication of Soul on Ice, which drew mixed reactions from black and white readers alike. Some praised his passionate prose for illuminating the state of American race relations; others com-plained that his perspective was too narrow or even harmful to recently-won civil rights. Although some found his use of profanity and blasphemy distasteful, or took exception to his contempt for homosexuals expressed in "Notes on a Native Son," many hailed Cleaver as a promising and powerful writer.
In April, 1968, two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cleaver was charged with violating parole during a shoot-out between the Black Panthers and San Francisco police. He spent two months in jail before a judge, perhaps responding to widespread global support for his release, set him free. Cleaver promptly accepted nomination as the radical, interracial Peace and Freedom Party's candidate for U.S. president, only to learn by November, 1968, that a higher court had overturned the earlier decision. Rather than return to jail, Cleaver fled the country. For the next seven years, he lived as a fugitive in Cuba, Algeria, and France and visited the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, and North Korea. During his stay in Cuba, Cleaver published Post-Prison Writings and Speeches (1969), which most critics received as an overly clichéd justification of the Black Panther ideology. Before he returned to the United States, Cleaver underwent a political awakening and religious conversion: he became disillusioned with socialism after actually visiting and living in communist societies, and he became a born-again Christian following a mystical vision in the night sky. He surrendered to the F.B.I. in 1975 and struck a plea bargain whereby he was placed on probation and ordered to perform 2,000 hours of community service. In 1978 Cleaver published Soul on Fire, a retrospective work detailing his association and disenchantment 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 fiery rhetoric and analytic skill that marked his early writings, although some admired it for its tone of mature compromise. Remaining in California until his death, Cleaver engaged in many enterprises: he designed a line of men's trousers that featured a codpiece; crafted decorative flowerpots; worked for a tree-trimming service; and created several short-lived evangelical movements. In the 1980s he returned to politics, unsuccessfully seeking a seat on the Berkeley city council in 1984 and the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1986, but by the late 1980s, Cleaver was struggling with drug addiction and anonymity. Eventually regaining sobriety, he renewed his activism on behalf of environmental issues. As an anonymous Newsweek writer claimed, Cleaver "lived too long to die a martyr, accomplished too little to qualify as a hero, but leaves behind, like a ghostly trace on a TV screen, the memory of his eloquent rage."
"Notes on a Native Son" (essay) 1966; published in journal Ramparts
Soul on Ice (essays) 1968
Eldridge Cleaver's Black Papers (essays) 1969
Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches (essays and speeches) 1969
Soul on Fire (essays) 1978
Bart Barnes (obituary date 2 May 1998)
SOURCE: "Eldridge Cleaver, Author and Black Panther Leader, Dies," in Washington Post, May 2, 1998, p. D6.
[In the following obituary, Barnes provides an overview of Cleaver's life and career.]
Eldridge Cleaver, 62, the information minister of the Black Panther Party whose searing rhetoric and exhortations of insurrection made him a revolutionary cult leader of the 1960s, died May 1 in California.
Mr. Cleaver, who had served almost 12 years in prison on a variety of assault, drug and theft charges, was author of the best-selling Soul on Ice, a collection of essays about his own life and the fate of black people in the United States, written while he was in jail in California. Published in 1968, the book became the political manifesto of the Black Panther Party, which Mr. Cleaver helped organize in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
After a gun battle with Oakland police in 1968, Mr. Cleaver fled the United States, living for the next seven years in Cuba, France and Algeria. In 1975, he returned as a born-again Christian, renounced his revolutionary views and subsequently joined the Republican Party.
Later he battled drug and alcohol addictions and in 1994 underwent emergency brain surgery after being hit on the head and knocked unconscious during a cocaine buy. After that experience, he promised to stay clean.
He died at Pomona Valley Medical Center in Pomona. Citing family requests for privacy, the hospital would not release the cause of death or provide details on Mr. Cleaver's hospitalization.
Mr. Cleaver, the son of a nightclub piano player and a schoolteacher, was born in Wabbaseka, Ark. He moved as a child to Phoenix and later to Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, he was sent to reform school for bicycle theft, released and then arrested and sent back to reform school for selling marijuana.
Only days after his second release, he was rearrested for possession of marijuana and reincarcerated for 30 months at the California State Prison at Soledad. There he completed high school, and he read voraciously, including the writings of Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Lenin and W. E. B. DuBois.
Released in 1957, he returned to the streets, where he sold marijuana and committed rape. In Soul on Ice, he would later write: "I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto … where dark and vicious deeds appear not as deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of a day—and when I considered myself smooth enough I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey … rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values."
A year after getting out of Soledad, Mr. Cleaver was arrested and convicted of assault with intent to murder. Sentenced to a term of two to 14 years, he was imprisoned at San Quentin and later at Folsom Prison. "After I returned to prison," he wrote, "I took a long look at myself and for the first lime in my life admitted that I was wrong, and that I had gone astray—astray not so much from the white man's law as from being human, civilized…. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered. That is why I started to write. To save myself."
Seeking a program of self-discipline, he joined the Black Muslims, but because California prison authorities did not recognize the Nation of Islam as a legitimate religious organization, Mr. Cleaver's efforts to proselytize other prisoners were often punished with long periods in solitary confinement.
Paroled from prison in 1966, Mr. Cleaver became active almost immediately with the Black Panthers, calling for an armed insurrection to overthrow the U.S. government and for the establishment of a black socialist government in its place.
The next few years were a time of social and political turbulence in the United States, with protests over the Vietnam War escalating and demands by civil rights organizations for full participation in American society growing stronger. Several major U.S. cities had been torn by riots.
In this atmosphere, Middle America tended to view the Black Panthers as a band of gun-toting radicals, intimidating in their signature black berets and leather jackets to the law-abiding. In several cities, the Black Panthers operated free lunch programs for poor children and managed other social service efforts, but they also had periodic confrontations with police. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said the Black Panthers were the nation's "greatest threat."
In April 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Cleaver and another Black Panther, Bobby Hutton, became involved in a shootout with Oakland police in which three officers were wounded and Hutton was killed when he tried to surrender. Mr. Cleaver's parole was revoked, and he was charged with assault and attempted murder.
By then, Soul on Ice had made Mr. Cleaver a public figure, and his cause was taken up around the world. A demonstration on his behalf in New York attracted the likes of writer Susan Sontag and actor Gary Merrill. In France, film director Jean-Luc Godard urged donations to Mr. Cleaver's defense fund. The Peace and Freedom Party, an organization of black and white liberals, made him its candidate in the 1968 U.S. presidential election.
On Nov. 27, 1968, Mr. Cleaver was scheduled to return to jail. Instead, he jumped $50,000 bail and fled to Mexico City and then to Cuba, where he remained until 1969. Later, he traveled to Paris and then to Algeria, where he was greeted as a "revolutionary hero" and given a villa in Algiers by the government. The villa was intended as a haven for black American exiles and a base for recruitment of U.S. military deserters. But in fact, Mr. Cleaver spent much of his time feuding long-distance with Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who in 1971 expelled him from the party.
In time, relations between Mr. Cleaver and the Algerian government became strained, and Mr. Cleaver changed his political and religious convictions. He underwent a mystical conversion to Christianity after an experience in which he said he saw the figure of Jesus Christ on the face of the moon. He came to believe that the socialist and Marxist systems he had witnessed in other countries failed to deliver on their promises. In a 1978 book, Soul on Fire, he wrote: "I had heard so much rhetoric about their glorious leaders and their incredible revolutionary spirit that even to this very angry and disgruntled American it was absurd and unreal." He described the politics of Cuba as "voodoosocialism."
Shortly before returning to the United States, he wrote on the op-ed page of the New York Times: "With all of its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world."
On surrendering to California authorities, Mr. Cleaver pleaded guilty to assault after prosecutors dropped attempted murder charges against him in the 1968 police shootout. He was placed on probation and directed to perform 2,000 hours of community service.
In the years since then, he had designed a line of men's trousers with a strategically placed attachment called the "Cleaver sleave," worked as a tree surgeon and sold clay flowerpots. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in the 1986 California Republican primary.
His marriage to Kathleen Cleaver ended in divorce in 1985. They had two children, Maceo and Joju. He also had a son, Riley, from another relationship.
John Kifner (obituary date 2 May 1998)
SOURCE: "Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther Who Became G.O.P. Conservative, Is Dead at 62," in The New York Times, May 2, 1998, p. B8.
[In the following obituary, Kifner details Cleaver's literary career and traces the achievements and disappointments of his life.]
Eldridge Cleaver, whose searing prison memoir Soul on Ice and leadership in the Black Panther Party made him a symbol of black rebellion in the turbulent 1960's, died yesterday in Pomona, Calif., at the age of 62.
A spokesman for the Pomona Valley Hospital Center, Leslie Porras, declined to provide the cause of death or the reason Mr. Cleaver was in the hospital at the request of his family.
In the black leather coat and beret the Panthers wore as a uniform, Mr. Cleaver was a tall, bearded figure who mesmerized his radical audiences with his fierce energy, intellect and often bitter humor.
"You're either part of the problem or part of the solution," he challenged, in one of the slogans that became a byword of the era.
He became even more of a symbol when he jumped bail after a shootout between Black Panthers in Oakland, Calif., and the police and fled into exile in Cuba and Algeria, adding the causes of communism and third world liberation to his repertoire.
But after he returned to the United States in 1975, Mr. Cleaver metamorphosed into variously a born-again Christian, a Moonie, a Mormon, a crack cocaine addict, a designer of men's trousers featuring a cod piece and even, finally, a Republican.
When Soul on Ice was published in 1968, it had a tremendous impact on an intellectual community radicalized by the civil rights movement, urban riots, the war in Vietnam and campus rebellions. It was a wild, divisive time in America, and Mr. Cleaver's memoir from Folsom prison, where he was doing time for rape, was hailed as an authentic voice of black rage in a white-ruled world. The New York Times named it one of its 10 best books of the year.
"Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing," Maxwell Geismar wrote in the introduction to the McGraw-Hill book, adding:
As in Malcolm X's case, here is an "outside" critic who takes pleasure in dissecting the deepest and most cherished notions of our personal and social behavior; and it takes a certain amount of courage and a "willed objectivity" to read him. He rakes our favorite prejudices with the savage claws of his prose until our wounds are bare, our psyche is exposed, and we must either fight back or laugh with him for the service he has done us. For the "souls of black folk" in W. E. B. Du Bois's phrase, are the best mirror in which to sec the white American self in mid-20th century.
First printed in Ramparts, the quintessential radical magazine of the 60's, Mr. Cleaver's prison essays are angry, sometimes bitingly funny, often obsessed with sexuality. And they trace the development of his political thought through his prison readings of the works of Thomas Paine, Marx, Lenin, James Baldwin and, above all Malcolm X.
"I have, so to speak, washed my hands in the blood of the martyr Malcolm X," Mr. Cleaver wrote after the assassination of the onetime Black Muslim leader who had moved away from separatism, "whose retreat from the precipice of madness created new room for others to turn about in, and I am caught up in that tiny space, attempting a maneuver of my own."
But it was a difficult space to reach. In one of the book's most gripping and brutal passages, he wrote:
I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto—in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of the day—and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately, willfully,...
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Charlayne Hunter (review date 24 March 1968)
SOURCE: "To Mr. and Mrs. Yesterday," in New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1968, p. 3.
[In the following review, Hunter outlines the principal themes of Soul on Ice.]
Eldridge Cleaver is a 33 year-old black man, an ex-convict and former Muslim whose book, Soul on Ice, strongly affirms what the Commission on Civil Disorders just told us about our country. In Cleaver's words: "Old funny-styled, zipper-mouthed political night riders know nothing but to haul out an investigating committee to look into the disturbance to find the cause of the unrest among the youth. Look into a mirror! The cause is you, Mr. and Mrs. Yesterday, you with your forked...
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Robert Hughes (review date 7 February 1969)
SOURCE: "Black Cream," in Spectator, Vol. 222, No. 7337, February 7, 1969, pp. 174-75.
[In the following review, Hughes situates the themes of Soul on Ice in the context of American race relations at the middle of the twentieth century.]
In one of the scenarios which experts make to fix our future nightmares, a research team from Rutgers University has predicated that, due to the rise of temperature in American rivers from hot effluent waste, some major streams will be at boiling point by 1980 and may have evaporated by 2010. Refrigeration will not help; it only generates more waste heat. It is a curious quirk which leads the liberal audience to accept such...
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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 26 February 1969)
SOURCE: "Soul on Fire," in New York Times, Vol. 118, February 26, 1969, p. 45.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt appraises the insights of Post-Prison Writings and Speeches.]
Late in November, 1968, Eldridge Cleaver disappeared from the view of the American public and the prison authorities of the state of California. He left behind him a brief and dazzling career as an author, journalist and militant black leader; a lot of friends and admirers; and a number of unanswered questions. This book, Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches—while it consists of hastily written journalism and speeches that appeared in Ramparts magazine, and was...
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Grier Raggio, Jr. (review date 13 March 1969)
SOURCE: "Complex 'Black Voice' Called Eldridge Cleaver," in Wall Street Journal, Vol. CLXIII, No. 51, March 13, 1969, p. 14.
[In the following review, Raggio explicates the main points of Cleaver's agenda in Post-Prison Writings and Speeches, separating his rhetoric from his insights on race relations.]
Eldridge Cleaver is not a man who errs, in life or in prose, on the side of caution. At age 20 he began a systematic program of raping white women after coming to the conclusion that Negro males had a hang-up about them. American society, he reasoned, fostered the white woman as an ideal while forbidding the black man to touch her, and she thus became a symbol of...
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Gerald M. Costello (review date 29 March 1969)
SOURCE: A review of Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches, in America, Vol. 120, No. 13, March 29, 1969, p. 369.
[In the following review, Costello admires Post-Prison Writings and Speeches for its frank approach to American race relations.]
Fr. Harold Salmon, the young, soft-spoken black pastor named last year to serve as vicar of Harlem by New York Archbishop Terence J. Cooke, had some advice in the course of an interview a few weeks ago for anyone who wanted to understand the racial problem. "Listen to Stokely Carmichael," he said, "and listen to Eldridge Cleaver. Try to understand how anyone could get this angry."
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Stuart Hood (review date 13 September 1969)
SOURCE: "Mad Babylon," in Spectator, Vol. 223, No. 7368, September 13, 1969, p. 338.
[In the following review, Hood describes aspects of Cleaver's polemics in Post-Prison Writings and Speeches, concentrating on his sexual and social reform theories.]
'It has been said that people get the rulers they deserve. I do not believe, however, that America has the rulers it deserves. The State of California, emphatically, could not deserve the rulers it has. Yet we have them …' Thus Eldridge Cleaver in 'An Aside to Ronald Reagan', who had contrived to boycott Cleaver's appointment to a lectureship at the University of California. From its opening sentence—'I never...
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Joyce Nower (essay date March 1970)
SOURCE: "Cleaver's Vision of America and the New White Radical: A Legacy of Malcolm X," in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 4, No. 1, March, 1970, pp. 12-21.
[In the following essay, Nower discusses literary and historical antecedents of key themes of Soul on Ice, emphasizing the national hypocrisy of white Americans in reference to freedom, justice, and personal and political self-determination among black Americans.]
Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, is a collection of essays that conveys a world perspective on oppression and its sources, and sets forth the major tool of liberation:...
(The entire section is 6098 words.)
R. W. Johnson (review date 18 May 1979)
SOURCE: "Quite White," in New Statesman, Vol. 97, No. 2513, May 18, 1979, pp. 725-26.
[In the following review, Johnson recounts Cleaver's life as related in Soul on Fire.]
In November 1968 Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, jumped bail in California and absconded to Cuba. Cleaver, who had expounded at length his stirringly militant Black Power beliefs in the best-selling Soul on Ice, was then at the height of his notoriety. It was the era of the police shoot-outs with the Panthers, and brother Eldridge was talking more or less openly of carrying the struggle into regularised urban guerrilla warfare. From exile he continued...
(The entire section is 726 words.)
Paul T. Hornak (review date October 1979)
SOURCE: "New Godliness Douses Old Fire," in Change, Vol. 11, No. 7, October, 1979, pp. 67-70.
[In the following review, Hornak compares Soul on Fire to Cleaver's previous writings, perceiving a distinct change in his literary style and tone.]
Eldridge Cleaver, once a writer with a mission, has turned missionary. Instead of warring against racist pigs he stands tall for Christ. From blazing invective his writing has changed to tiresome entreaty. The revolutionary has been born again.
In the sixties, when God was just a curse, Cleaver urged blacks to arm for battle. Whites heard too; with alarm they watched him stride with gun-toting compatriots...
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Kim Hubbard and Meg Grant (essay date 15 April 1996)
SOURCE: "Free at Last," in People Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 15, April 15, 1996, pp. 79-80.
[In the following essay, Hubbard and Grant profile the life and times of Cleaver, focusing on his spiritual conversion.]
On the stage at Miami Springs Senior Community School, the man is dispensing his verities. "Drugs are diabolical—that stuff will hook you," he tells 200 high school students. Holding up a dog-eared Bible, he says, "Do not be prejudiced against this book. There are some good messages in there for you."
Instead of fidgeting, the students sit rapt—but it's not just the rhetoric they're savoring. The graying, goateed speaker before them is Eldridge...
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Robert Reid-Pharr (essay date Fall 1996)
SOURCE: "Tearing the Goat's Flesh: Homosexuality, Abjection and the Production of a Late-Twentieth-Century Black Masculinity," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 372-94.
[In the following excerpt, Reid-Pharr analyzes several homosocial incidents in Soul on Ice as evidence of Cleaver's unsuccessful attempt to define a universal black masculine identity.]
Diana Fuss has argued in a recent discussion of contemporary gay and lesbian theory that the figure of what we might call the undead homosexual, the homosexual who continually reappears, even and especially in the face of the most grisly violence and degradation, is absolutely necessary...
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David Horowitz (essay date 3 May 1998)
SOURCE: "Eldridge Cleaver's Last Gift: The Truth," in Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1998, p. M5.
[In the following essay, Horowitz comments on the significance of Cleaver's "many changes of heart" during his lifetime.]
Eldridge Cleaver was a man who made a significant imprint on our times and not for the best. But I mourn his passing nonetheless.
I first met Cleaver when he was Ramparts magazine's most famous and most bloodthirsty ex-con. "I'm perfectly aware that I'm in prison, that I'm a Negro, that I've been a rapist," he wrote in a notorious epistle [in Soul on Ice]. "My answer to all such thoughts lurking in their split-level heads,...
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Cooke, Michael G. "Kinship: The Power of Association in Michael Harper and Eldridge Cleaver." In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy, pp. 110-32. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
Examines representations of social bonding in African-American literature, showing that Soul on Ice portrays "not so much kinship as the need for kinship" since "the text has no active, substantial image for kinship."
Larrabee, Harold A. "The Varieties of Black Experience." New England Quarterly XLIII, No. 4 (December 1970): 638-45.
(The entire section is 287 words.)