It’s saying something that a book written nearly a half century ago retains the power to provoke, startle, scare, and move us (in almost equal measure). Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968) was a controversial read back in the day. And it remains a polarizing, knotty book these many years later.
My first encounter with Cleaver’s groundbreaking book was in my early college years. I had been reading (without purpose or plan) a number of books about black culture and the black experience in America–books such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (1968), among others.
Soul on Ice was the most daring and disturbing of them all.
I recently asked my older sister, Liz, about Soul on Ice (recalling that she had kept the book on her desk for a long time back in her college years). She sheepishly admitted that she didn’t remember ever actually reading the book–although she did recall conspicuously carrying Soul on Ice around with her on campus.
Back then, having a copy of Soul on Ice was tantamount to a political act. Sure, there was the hipness factor: it had that great cover of a brooding , thoughtful young black man outside the gates of a prison, some white day lilies off to his side.
It was a cool book to own, but more importantly it said something about who you were, how you saw yourself, and what you valued. Consider that just being seen with a copy of Cleaver’s book in certain areas of the country might get you a good ass-kicking or worse.
Racial hatred, violence, and despair hung thick in the air back in those days.
I read Soul on Ice because it seemed important for a white college student like me to try to understand all that frustration and rage and anger. And to get an inside glimpse of a man who was at the very epicenter of the black power movement, an ex-con, admitted ex-rapist, Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, and a #1 badass dude: Eldridge Cleaver.
And then four decades rolled by . . .
In the interim, Cleaver had, shall we say, an oddly checkered career:
- Involved in a Black Panther shoot-out with the Oakland police in 1968 in which one Panther was killed and two policemen were wounded.
- Jumped bail and fled to exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France.
- Returned to the United States in 1975, plead guilty to reduced charges, and was sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.
- Became, variously, a born-again Christian, a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Mormon, a crack cocaine addict, a men’s fashion designer (his men’s trousers with a pronounced codpiece, called the “Cleaver sleave,” earned him truckloads of ridicule and puzzlement but no sales), a tree surgeon, a designer of clay flowerpots.
- Ran, in perhaps his most baffling transformation, as a conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 1986 California Republican Primary.
- Died in 1998 at the age of 62.
So, after all the violence and turbulence and thunder of the Sixties and Seventies, poor Eldridge ended up as a kind of sad punch line.
But Soul on Ice remains: angry, proud, funny, and undaunted.
So, what’s it like to read Soul on Ice today?
Well, it isn’t the slog I expected. Given the political and linguistic excesses of the Sixties, I thought the book would be full of empty, Sixties-era revolutionary rhetoric. Yes, there is some sloganeering, lots of anger, some naiveté about how “the revolution” would unfold, etc. (Cleaver is much better at focusing attention on the problems, not so great at providing realistic or workable solutions.) But there are many more stretches of clear-headed analysis and overall reasonableness than I anticipated (or remembered).
Cleaver can be an engaging, witty, thoughtful, occasionally very funny writer.
He is hilarious, for instance, when describing how learning to dance the Twist helped uptight whites partially reclaim their alienated bodies:
They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life . . .
It’s surprising to recall that Soul on Ice was picked as one of the 10 best books of 1968 by The New York Times. This despite the fact that Cleaver was a convicted criminal, long-time prison inmate, and self-confessed rapist. (I told you it was a controversial book.)
It’s also surprising that Soul on Ice is still (to use a word I hate, but really have to use in this instance) relevant. Amazingly relevant, actually.
There were so many moments as I was re-reading Soul on Ice over the past few days, when I found myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief: are we really still here? Are we still fighting these battles? Has the game changed so little?
Here are just a few examples of what I mean.
Cleaver’s observations about how white Americans prefer their black sports heroes and entertainers to be subservient, apolitical, non-threatening continue to ring true today. (Americans have always hated, still hate mouthy blacks.) His take on Muhammad Ali (vs. Floyd Paterson or Sonny Liston), for instance, is spot on:
There is no doubt that white America will accept a black champion, applaud and reward him, as long as there is no “white hope” in sight. But what white America demands in her black champions is a brilliant, powerful body and a dull, bestial mind–a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring.
And Cleaver is astute when it comes to the different value American society places on a white life versus a black life. He recognizes that the civil rights movement only really took hold when white activists were being beaten and killed alongside blacks.
Even well into the 21st century, this troubling double standard still exists:
The racist conscience of America is such that murder does not register as murder, really, unless the victim is white. . . . When white freedom riders were brutalized along with blacks, a sigh of relief went up from the black masses, because the blacks knew that white blood is the coin of freedom in a land where for four hundred years black blood has been shed unremarked and with impunity. America has never truly been outraged by the murder of a black man, woman, or child.
There are many moments in Soul on Ice that feel remarkably current. For example, one of Cleaver’s characters describes an encounter he and his girlfriend have had with a white traffic cop (after running “just a little too late” through a red light):
“‘Say, Boy,’ he said to me, ‘are you color-blind?’ I didn’t want a ticket so I decided to talk him out of it. I went into my act, give him a big smile and explained to him that I was awfully sorry, that I thought I could make it but that my old car was too slow. He talked real bad to me . . . I said a bunch of Yes Sir’s and No Sir’s and he told me to run along and be a good boy. When I drove off, I looked over at my woman and she had turned completely sour. . . . she packed up all her belongings and split.”
There is an eerily similar scene in the Oscar-winning film, Crash (2004) in which a black couple (played by Terence Howard and Thandie Newton) undergo a similar (even more horrendous) encounter with the police. Again, the black man has to resort to subservient play-acting in order to appease the rascist cop and protect himself and his companion. When they get home, his wife is livid with him for not standing up for himself. The more things change . . .
And Cleaver has his eyes on the international scene as well. He suggests that the racist streak in right-wing America–having been at least partially thwarted by the civil rights movement and legislation at home–finds expression in United States foreign policy, which invariably targets non-white populations for its aggressive impulses. Cleaver, of course, was primarily thinking of the Vietnam War which was raging at the time, but one wonders what he would have made of our recent excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan:
And the right is able to manipulate the people by playing upon the have-gun-will-travel streak in America’s character, coupled with the narcissistic self-image as friend of the underdog. Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on twenty-four-hour call to any spot on the globe where dispute and conflict may erupt.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Soul on Ice is the degree to which Cleaver is brutally honest and unflinching as he tracks his own evolution as a thinker and a human being. He risks losing us in the very first essay of the book:
I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing 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 . . .
Thankfully for him and for us, Cleaver’s many years in prison (including stints in San Quentin and Folsom) were spent reading, reflecting, and reconsidering his life’s arc:
After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray–astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized–for I could not approve the act of rape. . . . I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.
That is why I started to write. To save myself.
The Cleaver that emerges in the pages of Soul on Ice is a complicated, polarizing, yet ultimately relatable figure. Perhaps not surprisingly, Malcolm X (another complicated and polarizing figure) holds a special place in Cleaver’s heart. Malcolm’s journey from criminal to adherent of Elijah Muhammad’s racist doctrines to a more humanistic world view mirrors Cleaver’s own journey:
Malcolm X, in the eyes of Elijah’s [Muhammad] followers, had committed the unforgivable heresy when, changing his views and abandoning the racist position, he admitted the possibility of brotherhood between blacks and whites.
. . . there were those of us who were glad to be liberated from the doctrine of hate and racial supremacy. The onus of teaching racial supremacy and hate, which is the white man’s burden, is pretty hard to bear.
Not every aspect of the book has aged gracefully. Cleaver, of course, is no saint and some of his views are impossible to endorse.
His attitudes toward the sexual politics of race, for one, (outlined most fully in the convoluted essay, “The Primeval Mitosis”) can be pretty out there–especially his attitude toward white women. His pronouncements on homosexuality are disgusting and downright indefensible:
Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors.
But, even with all its flaws, there is a surprisingly bracing dose of truth and sense in Soul on Ice.
Perhaps the final take-away should be: don’t discount this book because you think it is an interesting but dispensable relic from a distant past. Soul on Ice is not a silly time capsule from the Sixties. Even if we don’t like all its messages, there are lessons here still to be learned.