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."