Soul on Ice – Eldridge Cleaver

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.

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7 thoughts on “Soul on Ice – Eldridge Cleaver

  1. I think I’d find it very hard to read this and I would struggle to tease out the useful critique among the bad stuff! I’m very easily swayed and I tend to put decide whether I agree with the author or not and then read and critique from either an agreeing or disagreeing position, so I really admire your ability (and energy) to constantly reserve judgement and take the text as it comes.

    1. I’m like that with philosophical, and sometimes psychological, works! It’s hard sometimes to determine whether your thoughts come from a book you’ve read or something you’ve heard or whether it’s your own thought brought about by critical thinking.

      I’m pretty sure you won’t agree with all Cleaver wrote in this book though. I’m still not sure how I feel about him!

  2. Wow. I guess I should read this. The only things I know about Cleaver were written by Huey Newton (who was not happy with the direction Cleaver wanted to take the Black Panther Party, hence their falling-out). I had no idea about the homophobia and rape stuff. Whoa.

    And I agree–he either didn’t really follow what Baldwin was about, or he didn’t understand him.

    1. Ah, Huey Newton is another name that keeps coming up (I know nothing about him). I really want to read more about the Black Panthers; they have always intrigued me.

      Yeah, the homophobia and rape sections were pretty tough to read. Also difficult to read for me were the parts talking about how black men detest black women.

  3. Another great book about the Civil Rights Movement is John Lewis’ “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” It is an excellent look at personal experiences during that time and it is written in a way that conveys the struggles and triumphs of the Movement without being so caustic.
    There is something about Eldridge Cleaver that I have never been able to stomach–I am a student of history but, for some reason, I have a difficult time *hearing* his voice. It is somehow too much for me; I am kind of ashamed of myself as I strongly believe that everyone should have a voice and everyone has a story to tell but he is so OFFENSIVE at times it is difficult for me to glean much from his message. It has been years since I have visited this book…after this review, I think I will try again. Maybe this time I will get more than anger from it.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Shantel! I’ve added it to my list. It sounds fascinating, hope my library has it 🙂

      I hear what you’re saying about Cleaver’s tone. Definitely offensive, especially the way he discussed the rapes and racial sexual politics. Tone is so important and he must have known that considering all the books that he’d read. Let me know your thoughts if you do choose to re-read it!

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