Wednesday 17 August 2016

Soul On Ice - Eldridge Cleaver


Eldridge Cleaver? Fuck off. And I'll tell you as to why:
'I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practising on black girls in the ghetto 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, and that I was defiling his women - and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge. From the site of the act of rape, consternation spreads outwardly in concentric circles. I wanted to send waves of consternation throughout the white race.'
And then there's this:
'I, for one, do not think homosexuality is the latest advance over heterosexuality on the scale of human evolution. Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors.'
And then just to add icing to the cake, Cleaver ended up being a born-again Christian and becoming a conservative Republican. All well and good and all very normal you might say but what makes it all so very problematic is that sandwiched between his early rapist years and his latter day Republican stint, Eldridge Cleaver was the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, kicking some serious revolutionary ass and putting the frighteners on practically everyone in America possessed of a conservative bent.

Soul On Ice is a collection of Cleaver's writings, composed whilst serving time in California's Folsom State Prison. Published in 1968, what the book does is to chronicle Cleaver's transformation from a racist, woman-hating nihilist to a fully-fledged black revolutionary able and willing to work alongside other New Left radicals of whatever colour, class or creed.
Cleaver's conversion is brought about by three people: firstly - himself, through the reading of books by the like of Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Marx, Lenin and Bakunin. Interestingly, he admits at one point to taking Nechayev's book Catechism Of The Revolutionist as his bible - the ultimate advocacy of the 'by whatever means necessary' school of thought if ever there was one.
Secondly, through the inspirational and compassionate teachings of a teacher at San Quentin by the name of Chris Lovdjeff, whom Cleaver nicknamed 'The Christ' (and who he later metaphorically crucified after telling him he didn't love white people - Lovdjeff himself being white).
And then thirdly, through the words of Malcolm X whom Cleaver threw his full support behind and in doing so abandoned his racism and dropped the black supremacist ideas of Elijah Muhammed, the then leader of the Nation of Islam.

It's here that Cleaver was at his peak, casting a radicalised eye not only upon himself but more importantly upon the state of American society and the position of black people within it. With the help of his lawyer, Cleaver's writings were published to much critical acclaim from the liberal Left; the problem here being the general lack of criticism.
Were they blind-sided by him coming across as the real deal: a black man from the ghetto serving up cutting and insightful sociological and political analysis? Should he not have been pulled up for calling rape 'an insurrectionary act'? Should he not have been called out on his homophobia?
It was a different time and a different place back then, of course, but is that reason enough to forgive and to continue turning a blind eye? For sure, Cleaver regretted and rejected his past self and his early life and admitted he was wrong but then later as a born-again Christian and conservative Republican he did the same again but in regard to his Black Panther days. Which begs the question: When exactly was Cleaver right? When exactly was he not wrong?

The answer, I would argue, is to be found within the pages of Soul On Ice but a discerning eye is required. His observations and thoughts on the assassination of Malcolm X, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, the Watts riots, and American culture are penetrating and spot on. Other times, however, he's way off the mark, particularly when writing about women.
It needs to be asked as well, who exactly was Cleaver writing for? Who was his target audience? Was he writing for himself or for his fellow black men (and women)? Was it for anyone and everyone, or were his writings aimed specifically at a white readership? At black America, or white America?
Not for one second would he have had me in mind but just look at who's ended up reading him now in 2016, in Babylon Devon, in the Exmouth ghetto...  
                                                                                                                                          ...John Serpico


  1. I realize this was written, or at least posted, in 2016, more than three years ago (at the time of my own comment). But I just came across it and find it a well-wrought analysis of a figure largely forgotten by whites and blacks alike in 2019. It is important, I think, to re-visit people, events, and ideas to lend another perspective upon the present. And upon the future. Nice job, Mr. Serpico.

    1. I've only just seen your comment you made in October. Just wanted to say 'thank you', DaveH.