My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Soul On Ice is the seminal collection of social criticism by Eldridge Cleaver framing his observance of the drastic transformation occurring during the late 60’s as nonviolent civil disobedience gave rise to a vitriolic demand for Black Power. He was possessed of a rich, raw eloquence and the ability to manipulate profanity as a form of punctuation. Cleaver epitomized a form of thought leadership manifesting itself in this whirlwind period of Black radicalism which had wrestled ideological dominance back from the sanitized presentation of the centrist Black clergy and political class. Its orientation was towards a grassroots fusion of street knowledge with a rediscovered deep leftist political ideology. An ideology which had flourished in the Black community throughout the Harlem Renaissance only to be subverted by the Great Depression, Red Scare nativism and individual economic gain. This fusion, while possessed of the noble aim to draw urban youth in from exile to be politically engaged, was also lacking the long view which renews political ties with a progressive past in order to build upon prior knowledge instead of duplicating present effort.
This latest reading finds my views matured in their acknowledgement of the profound sociopathy inherent in Cleaver’s description of exploring rape as an insurrectionist act (“On Becoming”). Where once existed an intellectual curiosity to understand the psychology, I can now experience only the utmost antipathy as he outlines refining his technique by practicing on Black girls before crossing over to white. The brisk logic of his confession no longer strikes the necessary emotional tone which would convince me of his empathy for the victims. He seems certain of his rationale, but unable to discern any true fault in his decision which factors into the literary construct he builds throughout the text. In prison studies, he was able to master a militant discourse made routine by the cultural fluctuations of the time. This proficiency was juxtaposed against a narcissistic indulgence in his own opinion which was nearer to didacticism than dialogue often leading to conflict between his rhetoric and action. As one of the beneficiaries of a cult of personality in which the white counterculture emphasized a revolutionary narrative above the continuous resistance required to overturn an oppressive system, his writings would be widely circulated in the political magazine Ramparts garnering support for his release. This support was forthcoming even as his sole contribution to social transformation consisted of a series of strident political dispatches and dexterity in prison debate.
In further inspecting his trajectory from fiery American iconoclast to conservative ideologue, his longstanding admiration of Malcolm throughout the text peaking in the essay “Initial Reactions on the Assassination of Malcolm X” returns to haunt him. Malcolm had rooted himself in the organizational hierarchy of the Nation of Islam only to be rebuked for expressing an opinion not conforming with the established guideline. His analysis that the program espoused by Elijah Muhammad was ineffective did not lead him to conclude that the American experience held any greater virtue by contrast. Cleaver adopted precisely the opposite position upon his return from exile surmising that because communism as it was practiced in Cuba, Algeria and North Vietnam was injurious to members of its population, capitalism must be the only socioeconomic construct capable of producing a just and democratic society. In a telling line from the text about coming to atheism in his early years in prison, Cleaver writes “Unsophisticated and not based on any philosophical rationale, our atheism was pragmatic.” The conclusions drawn by Cleaver from his expatriation fostered an inability to launch any deeper inquiry into the nature of American society beyond the dichotomy of America and its antithesis hindering any evolution from his nascent pragmatism. His later life reflected an unprincipled commitment to a multitude of complementary and contradictory causes. Thus he returns once to the arms of the Republican party, another time to evangelical Christianity, again to the Unification Church and later to his own personal synthesis philosophy, Chrislam, searching for a place to belong, but never elucidating a single point of focus as succinctly as Malcolm.
Cleaver’s most egregious criticism in “Soul On Ice” is reserved for James Baldwin (“Notes on a Native Son”) whose work he alleges exhibits “…the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note in our time.” Cleaver goes far beyond mere literary critique in order to advance a vicious personal vendetta founded not on any principled disagreement with those critical insights raised in the writings of Baldwin, but on his distaste for the homosexual lifestyle. Cleaver presents the following three points as evidence of Baldwin’s racial disdain: the dismissal of Norman Mailer’s premise in “The White Negro”, an alleged snub of Aime Cesaire in the report from the Conference of Black Writers and Artists in Paris of 1956 and the censure of Baldwin’s mentor Richard Wright in the opening essay of “Notes of a Native Son” which disassembled Bigger Thomas as a Negro stereotype. Cleaver fails to build his case against Baldwin on any intellectual basis using those three points and peppers the remainder of the essay with a variety of ad hominem attacks against Baldwin’s Blackness, sexuality, masculinity and sincerity. Here we discover the young Cleaver in critical collapse for his arguments become incoherent. As with his sexual victimization of women, he seems unable to confront his deep seated issues of misogyny and masculinity choosing instead to assert his literary domination over the political direction of the Black community while framing the world to conform with his vacillating conviction.
At the outset of this review, I had every intent to eviscerate any further need to study this text in earnest. When I first entered organizational activism, my admiration of Cleaver was once so great that I took his title of Minister of Information as my own and sought to exhibit as firm a grasp as Cleaver of the political micro and macrocosm occurring about me. My initial desire was to exorcise the part of me that once accepted the gorgeous rhetoric displayed here so uncritically. Upon further contemplation, I have come to understand that it is necessary to retain Cleaver as a picture of fanatical naivete which circumscribes both his participation and our own. The fluctuations which he exhibits should remind us to never locate the success of our radical endeavors so far outside of ourselves. Cleaver’s vision of a successful socialist revolution was located in Algeria, Cuba, Korea and each of the other places he was able to experience in exile. When combined with a mostly self absorbed radicalization and the crushing defeat suffered by the Panthers at home, his appetite for resistance was left fatally injured upon his return. He now resembled a character from Soul On Ice described as an “Old Lazarus” (“The Allegory Of The Black Eunuchs”) whom Cleaver and some fellow inmates confronted for not being dead and accused of lacking the dedication to offer his life to the struggle for Black liberation. Cleaver exhibits here another momentary lapse in the certainty of his masculinity as he reaches down to examine himself “afraid that my rod would be missing”. The pseudo-mythology from the conversation with the “Old Lazarus” is then used to formulate the bizarre thesis of “The Primeval Mitosis”. This essay is presented in so a compelling fashion that such terms as “omnipotent administrator” would work their way into a broad array of Black Panther literature including the writings of Huey P. Newton. One of Cleaver’s own narratives again returns to haunt him as a new generation found itself prepared to pummel him with the same question “Old Lazarus, why come you’re not dead?” His answer appeared as a jumble of changes and permutations with no discernible objective to be found even in his writings and speeches taken together.
After a fresh reading of “Soul On Ice”, I am cautious to consider if I have judged Cleaver too harshly solely on the basis of this extreme transformation following exile. If the author of memoir and essay is to be judged by the philosophy he espouses in textual form, he must be bound for worse or better effect that those words form ideas remaining attached to his personal actions and are affected by each new transition. While Malcolm’s activism gave him a wider lens through which to dissect and offer criticism to the internal socio-poltical mechanisms of America, Cleaver opened his eyes and seemed content to return to squinting through the eyelids once more. “Soul On Ice” appears now as a series of malformed ideas and incomplete analyses of a proto-revolutionary which is sufficient to get the wheels stirring in the minds of those who would study history to extract the lessons left behind, but not fruitful enough to sustain a growing consciousness or fortify one’s personal philosophy. There are thinkers with a wider and more consistent body of work who can occupy that role with greater adequacy whose attractive language is not merely a vehicle for speculating upon perverse ideas.