Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Soul on Ice is a collection of autobiographical essays and notes on the black experience in the ghetto, in prison, and in the larger society. Eldridge Cleaver experiences great anguish as he constructs a philosophy capable of making sense of his life and of the inferior status of black people in America and throughout the world.

The book’s topics reflect a life shaped by events outside Cleaver’s control. Cleaver’s intellectual unfolding is mapped by his inner toiling to fathom himself and what is occurring around him. His autobiography is, therefore, a testament written by an outcast. Soul on Ice describes Cleaver’s endeavor to understand a world painted in black and white, a world in which poverty and powerlessness exist in the midst of plenty. It is, however, more than a personal account of one African American’s plight in a racist society; it is a narrative of all oppressed people in American society.

Cleaver pored through Greek classics, American history, and the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. He read insatiably from the works of African American writers such as Richard Wright, who inspired him, and James Baldwin, whom he found full of hatred for black people and confused about his own sexual identity. In Soul on Ice Cleaver takes Baldwin to task.

Cleaver’s account of himself is revelatory. A man with many burdens and demons, he claims to be too many things; it is left to readers to decide what he was, and when he was that way, from tidbits scattered through his book.

Soul on Ice shows Cleaver attempting to merge several philosophies: Black Muslim teachings, the attitudes of the Civil Rights movement, and the doctrine of the latter-day Black Power movement...

(The entire section is 720 words.)

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Soul on Ice is not an autobiography in the conventional sense; Eldridge Cleaver does not set out to tell the story of his life from the beginning, or even to tell the story of his life at all. The book is a philosophical and spiritual autobiography that contains analyses of the social conditions that caused Cleaver to lead the kind of life that he has. With a collection of apparently randomly organized essays and letters, only a few of which have as their announced subject the life of the writer, Cleaver explains how he came to recognize and understand his role as an African-American man in the twentieth century United States and, by inference, the role of all African Americans. Cleaver’s recognition of the meaning of his life did not occur in a sudden flash; bits and pieces of experience and memory coalesced to form revelations that gradually became a pattern. Soul on Ice reproduces this random process by presenting first an essay that is a personal recollection, then a letter apparently intended for any reader, then a series of prison vignettes, and then a formal essay on “The White Race and Its Heroes,” followed by similar kinds of material. By not insisting on a formal organization or approach to his subjects, Cleaver invites the reader to come with him on the road to discover himself and the United States.

The title essay of Soul on Ice and “On Becoming,” the first essay in the book, are the sections closest to a...

(The entire section is 468 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Caster, Peter. Prisons, Race, and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Film. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. Includes a chapter on Cleaver’s representation of the subject of imprisonment in Soul on Ice.

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Fire. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1978. The born-again Cleaver’s memoirs, written after his prison conversion to fundamentalist Christianity.

Lockwood, Lee. Conversation with Eldridge Cleaver. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. An overview of Cleaver’s philosophy, published at the height of his fame. Contains remarks made by Cleaver while he was an expatriate fugitive from the U.S. legal system.

Parks, Gordon. “What Became of the Prophets of Rage?” Life, Spring, 1988, 32. Special issue. Devoted to a retrospective look at the activists of the 1960’s (including Cleaver) and their subsequent evolution.

Rout, Kathleen. Eldridge Cleaver. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. A thorough overview of Cleaver’s life and writings. Bibliography, index.

“Whatever Happened to . . . Eldridge Cleaver?” Ebony, March, 1988, 66-68. America’s leading black magazine looks at Cleaver’s career from the vantage point of two decades.