Notes from Underground

EVEN BY THE TURBULENT standards of the 1960s, Eldridge Cleaver’s metamorphosis into a writer was extraordinary. Born in 1935 and raised in the Los Angeles ghetto, he had been convicted of a felony (marijuana possession) as a teen. The Soledad State Prison library was his Yale College and his Harvard: While other men his age availed themselves of the GI Bill, Cleaver schooled himself underground in stranger disciplines. Poring over various economic treatises, he discovered their authors united in their opposition to one Karl Marx. His discovery of Marx proved tonic: “It was like taking medicine for me to find that, indeed, American capitalism deserved all the hatred and contempt that I felt for it in my heart,” he wrote.

Economics was only the beginning: The writings published as Soul on Ice in 1968 display a thinker whose inquisitive spirit would lead him to a merciless interrogation of the meaning of his own desire. The black nationalism Cleaver professed was no simple affair. Despite its infamous homophobic attack on James Baldwin, Soul on Ice resembles Baldwin’s essays in its maintenance of a global perspective—for example, it doesn’t overlook black GIs’ massacre of Vietnamese peasants—and cultivation of a taste for intimate complication. But its author was straight, sometimes violently so. In Soledad, Cleaver had unearthed within his own psyche a longing for white women (“The Ogre”) that stirred him to fury: “I flew into a rage at myself, at America, at white women, at the history that had placed those tensions of lust and desire in my chest.” Cleaver resolved to join the ruthlessness of his heroes Bakunin, Nechayev, and Machiavelli with a racialized sexual aggression of his own devising. Once he was free, he wrote, “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.” Twelve months later he returned to prison, sentenced to fourteen years for serial rape, assault, and attempted murder.

In San Quentin and Folsom, Cleaver resumed his dizzying series of conversions. He renounced his view of rape as “an insurrectionary act.” (“I had gone astray—astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized.”) Stricken by a crisis of conscience, he sought relief in religion, becoming a leading Black Muslim among the inmate population, and in writing: prison memoirs, cultural criticism, and letters. In 1965, he wrote to Beverly Axelrod, an attorney who had distinguished herself by volunteering to represent the Congress of Racial Equality, to seek her aid in hastening his release. Impressed by Cleaver and his writings, Axelrod ferried those texts to Ramparts, the then-prominent Bay Area radical magazine, where they found immediate publication and were immediately celebrated. Supported by prominent editors, intellectuals, and Norman Mailer, Cleaver was freed in December 1966; soon after, he became the minister of information for the newly founded Black Panthers. The subsequent publication of Soul on Ice only confirmed the estimation of him, held across a broad but fragile spectrum ranging from the white left-liberals at the New York Review of Books to collegiate rebels to the nascent Black Power movement, as an eloquent, incisive, and above all authentic commentator on the visceral promise and chaotic threats of the cresting decade.

Cleaver was nothing if not current. Though imprisoned, he had kept up closely with the little magazines, the crucial essays, the important writers. For him, as for most others then, the central figure was Mailer, whose savage focus, phallic cant, and sanguine view of white youth copying black culture Cleaver reproduced with great fidelity for his own ends: “We shall have our manhood. . . . We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it.” In Cleaver’s schema, racial and sexual divisions necessarily represented inequalities in power and labor, and white power in America had reduced black men to impotence. Barred from skilled trades, held back from education, they were treated as bodies without minds: “Supermasculine Menials,” in Cleaver’s turgid yet revealing phrase. Revolution meant reaching across, forging and restoring links with others oppressed by the system—Viet Cong, white Beatles-loving college youth, Mao Zedong. And while Cleaver was hardly the first person to fall in love with a white woman and write about it, he was the first black man to have written on said topic for a mass audience while in prison. His personal passion for Axelrod, expressed in moving and candid, though imperfectly truthful, letters, forms the core of the book. Much like Shulamith Firestone, who would draw heavily on Soul on Ice in The Dialectic of Sex two years later, Cleaver attempts a Grand Unified Theory of power and desire capable of simultaneously accounting for gender, race, and class. How determined are our wants? What revolution can transform them to our satisfaction? (It is notable that both authors sabotage their theories with facile assumptions of the inherent aberrance of same-sex desire.)

Gordon Parks, Eldridge Cleaver and His Wife, Kathleen, Algiers, Algeria, 1970. Courtesy and © the Gordon Parks Foundation.
Gordon Parks, Eldridge Cleaver and His Wife, Kathleen, Algiers, Algeria, 1970. Courtesy and © the Gordon Parks Foundation.

We desire what we desire; desire, also, what disgusts us most. Can society be overthrown by such a contradiction? It’s uncertain, obviously. What is clear is that books like Cleaver’s and Firestone’s are the sign of an ambitious, if erratic, effort to map the currents of the world: Pressed forward by the clamor of the era, they stride daringly and stumble hard across the treacherous, shadowed terrain where personal lust and general revolution hold each other hostage.

Cleaver’s legacy is unlikely to undergo an intellectual revival like Firestone’s has recently. There simply may be too much baggage—ugly or bizarre—to unpack. Along with true love, Axelrod had been promised a quarter of the royalties from Soul on Ice: Deprived of both, she sued him for the latter. After staging a Panther ambush of Oakland policemen in the wake of the King assassination, Cleaver fled the country with his new wife, Kathleen, a brilliant daughter of the black bourgeoisie: A near-decadelong odyssey ensued as the Cleavers were welcomed to, and then pushed out of, Cuba, Algeria, North Korea, and Paris. Finally cracking under pressure, Cleaver returned to the States under the auspices of the FBI and evangelical Christianity. Copping a plea deal and drifting rightward, by 1984 he was praising Ronald Reagan to the RNC.

Much diminished, his intellectual wanderings continued until they petered out where they began, in California. Sometimes a Mormon, sometimes a Moonie, sometimes a crack addict, sometimes an inventor and salesman of male jeans named after himself (“Cleavers”) and designed to enhance the genitals, Cleaver, whose hustle had entranced a nation, swayed few, perhaps none, by the time he died in 1998. Once, he had been the incarnation of a fiery decade, a living piece of propaganda for a revolution whose libidinous fury, frankly bullshit inventions, and trace elements of real glory and connection could neither be denied nor suppressed. He ended as a burned-out tool. Who would take him for a model now?

Yet if you look elsewhere in the culture, a different picture emerges. In the fifty years since 1968, an art form centered around poor black urban male identity has emerged to dominate world culture: It’s no exaggeration to claim that the swagger, charm, intelligence, misogyny, and homophobia of Soul on Ice endure, much amplified, in street rap. True, there’s more talk of money and drugs than before. But what do they call the most lucrative drugs, those foremost incarnations of desire? They label it Princess Fiona. They know it as Hannah Montana. They call it white girl because no other words will do.

Frank Guan is a writer in New York.