This book is one of the several books I planned on reading to help fill in some of the woeful gaps in my knowledge of the Civil Rights movement. I now know more about Eldridge Cleaver through his collection of short essays, covering diverse topics such as Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, the sexual politics of race, war and politics, from Soul on Ice.
Cleaver’s writing is extremely infuriating yet it’s hard to stop reading. Cleaver’s views are so old-fashioned, homophobic, and misogynistic and, at times, slightly crazy, but it’s impossible to ignore his masterful use of the language, as well as his unique vantage point of the American race crisis. And you know it’s important to read this book as Cleaver was such a pivotal player in the Civil Rights movement.
The first couple of essays absolutely shocked me. Cleaver is very candid about the rapes he “practiced” (that was the expression he used) on black women in order to ultimately rape white women, an act which he saw as being revolutionary. However, the language he uses in this section isn’t one of a lunatic but one of an eloquent man, which is disturbing in itself.
Cleaver’s prison essays were the most poignant to me, as were his analyses of the living situation of blacks in America:
“Individuality is not nourished in prison, neither by the officials nor by the convicts. It is a deep hole out of which to climb.”
About American ghettos he says, “In this huge cauldron, inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry are stamped down and left to boil with the dregs of an elementally corrupted nature, and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed by vice and misery and degradation, obliterated, wiped out, washed from the register of the living, dehumanized.”
The book also includes some love letters he wrote to his lawyer, a woman who represented several of the Black Panthers. The inclusion of these letters seemed so surreal to me, yet they appear to have been very heartfelt.
I was definitely disgusted by Cleaver’s homophobia; for one thing he equated homosexuality to child-rape, which is ridiculous. And his lambasting of James Baldwin, one of my favourite writers, was harsh and uncalled for. He believed that Baldwin’s homosexuality made him less of a man. Additionally he believed that Baldwin was a sort of “Uncle Tom” figure who hated his own people. Judging from those sentiments and more, it doesn’t look as if he understood much of Baldwin’s work.
As Ishmael Reed said in the introduction, Cleaver is an “ ’outside’ critic who takes pleasure in dissecting the deepest and most cherished notions of our personal and social behaviour; and it takes a certain amount of courage and a ‘willed objectivity’ to read him.” I completely agree with this statement.