Robert Fulford's column about Eldridge Cleaver

(Globe and Mail, April 3, 1999)

This season has brought yet another reprint of Eldridge Cleaver's once-famous book, Soul on Ice (Delta, 242 pages, $17.95), looking handsome on the trade-paperback racks. It's a collection of personal essays about race and violence -- disjointed and poorly conceived -- written in a California prison when the author was serving nine years for attempted murder. No one would read it today for wisdom or style, but just to open it is to evoke the 1960s, a time when violent nonsense thrilled radical hearts everywhere. Spider Robinson regularly claims, in his Globe column, that the 1990s are "the crazy years." Spider must have missed the 1960s. For craziness, there has been nothing like that period, before or since.

Cleaver was a man of infinite delusions, a tragic figure when he was not a clown. He believed he was shaping the world around him, but in truth he was the creation of that world, the projection of its perverse fantasies. His dreams of power, invented under the pressure of racism and poverty, played into the hopes of New Left radicals, who saw him as an instrument of revolution. There was madness at the heart of his belief in armed struggle as a way to achieve racial justice.

In retrospect, he found it horrifying. As he said in a 1998 television interview, "If people had listened to . . . me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country."

But when he appeared on the scene, outrageous opinions dominated the ideology market, and Cleaver had a lot of them to sell. He also offered dangerous sexuality. "I became a rapist," he wrote of his early years. At first, he raped black women, then "sought out white prey." In his view, "rape was an insurrectionary act." He was defying the white man's law and "defiling his women. . . . I felt I was getting revenge."

In prison, he realized this was hardly the road to mental health, but repentance was not his style. Through a perversion of Christian theology, he came up with the idea that U.S. foreign policy redeemed him: "The blood of Vietnamese peasants has paid off all my debts." Here is the thing to remember: No one, absolutely no one, publicly laughed at that kind of drivel.

His lawyer took his essays to Ramparts, a radical magazine in San Francisco, and Cleaver was a published magazine writer by the time he successfully applied for parole in 1966. Ramparts put him on staff and considered him a prize. Peter Collier, who worked there, later wrote: "He was our noble savage, a radical celebrity who increased our clout."

The publication of Soul on Ice in 1968 heightened his celebrity. The New Republic called it "unsparing, unaccommodating, tough and lyrical by turns." The New York Times placed it among the year's 10 best books. Almost no one seemed troubled by its obsessive homophobia, expressed through a long, hysterical denunciation of a far better writer, James Baldwin. Reviewers also ignored the inclusion of painfully sentimental letters that Cleaver wrote from jail to the woman who was his lawyer and eventually his lover.

He joined the Black Panther Party soon after Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded it, as "minister of information," or press agent. He had a talent for rhetoric. He concocted the slogan, "You're either part of the problem or part of the solution." Those words, paraphrased slightly, were endlessly repeated by people who had no idea how smug, hateful and oppressive they were. Cleaver also understood imagery. He arranged the Panthers' most compelling icon, the photograph in which Newton sits in a wicker chair, a rifle in one hand, an African spear in the other.

In April of 1968, Cleaver was charged with attempted murder, after a gunfight with police in Oakland. He jumped bail and began a bizarre world tour of dictatorships, each of which -- Cuba, Algeria, North Korea -- found him troublesome and sent him on his way. In France in the mid-1970s, a revelation ("I saw a path of light in the sky") persuaded him he should go home and preach the Christian gospel. The California authorities let him do a few months in jail and some community service.

The rest of his life (he died last year, at 62) was spent in desperate attempts at personal reinvention, a fast-forward blur of shifting identities. Fame had become an addiction, and headline-seeking helped turn him into a parody. At one point, Rolling Stone magazine reported that he was a clothes designer with a line in men's pants, featuring a codpiece that emphasized the genitals -- "a Cleaver sleeve," he called it. That didn't work, and neither did anything else.

For a while, he ran the Cleaver Crusade for Christ. Later, he created "Christlam," to combine Christianity and Islam. He flirted with Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and also with Mormonism. For a while, he was a tree surgeon. He was in the recycling business. In the 1980s, he declared himself a supporter of Ronald Reagan, destroying his reputation on the campuses where he had once been welcomed.

Around 1990, he tried crack cocaine -- "I got curious," he explained. He became an impoverished addict, took treatment and preached against drugs. He said he was writing a screenplay. In 1996, People magazine found him in Miami, teaching at a Bible college. The man who was once clearly fated to die at the hands of police or fellow Panthers instead died in a hospital bed, of causes his family declined to identify.

Soul on Ice, strangely, still has admirers. The current paperback contains not only the original introduction by Maxwell Geismar ("Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing"), but also a preface that Ishmael Reed added in 1992. The book is a classic, says Mr. Reed, the product of the century's "most thrilling and humanistic" era.

Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association, has saluted the 1999 printing by calling Soul on Ice "a book that sent shock waves through the zeitgeist with the force of its truths and brilliance, and which shines with undiminished radiance 30 years later." As Isaac Bashevis Singer once remarked, "There is no writer so bad that some critic will not call him great."

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image