(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.)