Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Soul on Ice gained international recognition and became an icon among black radicals. In his essays, Cleaver scrutinized numerous aspects of racism in the United States, not least of all the strain and induced self-hatred of blacks, specifically represented by rape and sexual abuse among blacks and by black-on-black violence. Cleaver, though self-taught and mostly a caged observer of the events of the 1960’s, exhibited a simplicity and insight that fated his book to be of great value.
Soul on Ice sold more than two million copies. The sheer volume of sales was significant and the book had a wide influence on black radicals and even moderates in the Civil Rights movement.
Cleaver redirected the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He remains an enigmatic personality of the 1960’s. It is difficult to explain why he has endured, larger than life, when after all he was a theorist; when he undertook to become an activist, he failed and ended up fleeing the country for a safe haven in Cuba and then in Algeria.
Soul on Ice was his most conspicuous attainment, if not his only consequential bequest to black radicalism. After prison and his involvement with the Black Panther Party, Cleaver bade farewell to the political scene, only to return in the 1980’s as a symbol of the 1960’s. He proclaimed on his return that he was a born-again orthodox Christian. His search continued for his identity and that of his people, but with less fanfare for both.
A history of the times is incomplete without mention of Soul on Ice. Cleaver’s impact on the black bourgeoisie, whom he loathed, was perhaps greater than on any other constituency: It was the black youth, relatively affluent and educated, who read Soul on Ice and appropriated Cleaver’s dreams for themselves.