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40 YEARS ON: REVISITING ELDRIDGE CLEAVER'S SOUL ON ICE

 

By Mike Peters

 

 

Editor's note: We incorrecty attributed this piece to Mark Anthony Neal. Our sincere apologies to Mike Peters and our readers for this error.

 

Wednesday, September 24, 2008.

 

Race is an ever-present shadow hanging over both American and Western political and social life, and with Barack Obama closing in on the White House, the shadow looms increasingly larger and more ominous. Obama may not want to talk directly about the issue but every word he speaks is inscribed with the knowledge of his origins and identity.

 

For this reason, Eldridge Cleaver`s Soul on Ice, published forty years ago, in the year of attempted revolutions, continues to resonate. Written from the inside, both literally and metaphorically, the book of essays and open letters, composed whilst the author served a sentence for assault in Folsom Prison, California, powerfully articulates the experience of blackness in a society built on the twin ideas of freedom and slavery.

 

The sense of division in the book is pervasive. America is depicted as a `schizophrenic` nation,  split between image and reality, black and white, old and young and between competing choices about how to live  for those labelled as different by established authority.

 

Beginning with the difficult and dangerous matter of the relationship between black men and white women, Cleaver tries to understand how sexual attraction is shaped by the racial power structure of society.

 

At first frustrated and then angry by a desire he cannot properly understand, he becomes a rapist to enact his rage. Self-aware and self-critical, Cleaver never flinches from the shocking facts. Things are certainly different now but few would claim that even in today`s America, the relationship he formed with his white female lawyer, Beverly Axelrod, would be unremarked. The link between sex and race is a potently dangerous one for the American and to some extent, Western imagination, whether black or white.

 

Soul on Ice is rich with insights into what lies below the surface of the relationship between the races in US society, both then and now. Cleaver, for example, exposes the ways in which  `an elaborate system of sanctions, rewards, penalties, and persecutions`  enables white society  to use its influence and power to ensure that challenges to the status quo are neutralised.

 

Black leaders who can be manipulated and controlled are given favour, whilst those who refuse compromise are marginalised - `blasted into obscurity`. Uncomfortably, Martin Luther King, is viewed as one of the `puppets and lackeys of the white power structure`, a judgement, harsh as it is, that may cause us to question his current heroic status within Western culture.

 

Against King, James Baldwin and a series of black celebrities, Cleaver sets the figures of Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali and Paul Robeson, all who speak authentically for and to America`s racially oppressed minorities.  

 

Whilst the division Cleaver constructs between Uncle Toms and true black heroes is extreme, its very sharpness and uncompromising nature offers contemporary readers some immunity against an official soft rhetoric of racial tolerance and justice that disguises the hard political and social realities below.

 

The moral falsity and weakness of those who speak this rhetoric is also exposed in the portrait of an educated prisoner, who befriends the author, and then, when it becomes personally inconvenient, drops him; Cleaver recognises that self-serving and fearful  liberals can be politicians or the person in the house (or cell) next door. 

 

The connections that are drawn between domestic and international issues provide another illuminating feature of Soul on Ice. Most powerfully, Cleaver sees a link between America`s imperial ambitions abroad – for Vietnam read Iraq – and its policies on race at home.  Viewing people as inferior – whether they be inhabitants of a third world country thousands of miles away or neighbours of a different colour, facilitates persecution and bombing.

 

Few have made a link between the reaction to the floods that hit New Orleans in 2005 and US military intervention in the Middle East, but it would almost certainly be one that Cleaver would notice. In addition, using black soldiers to fight foreign wars makes them and their race complicit in the crimes that are committed; if ideas of freedom and democracy cannot hold the nation together, then guilt certainly will.    

 

Politically astute, Cleaver also understands that the fate of black people depends to a considerable extent on a changed white consciousness. Writing as a radical student movement is developing during the 1960s, he sees its importance for the US black population. Once white youth is involved, once they become victims of police brutality, progress can be made, for then the authorities will be compelled by public opinion to do more than express empty words of sorrow; ` white blood is the coin of freedom`.

 

Soul on Ice is full of such observations that at once shock and illuminate. Of course, there are problems and limitations – particularly in the latter stages of the book, where Cleaver seems to indulge in a metaphysical and abstract rhetoric that repeats clichéd stereotypes. Nevertheless, at its best, the book provides an extremely direct and forceful critique of the `power equation` that is central to the relationship between black and white in America then and now. Historically treated as someone`s property, black people still live psychically with their object-status and identity, `alienated from the very sidewalks on which they walk`.  

 

Cleaver, after his involvement with the Black Panther movement, may have lost his way, flirting with Evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. However, nothing can diminish the brilliant incisiveness of his first literary and intellectual achievement.

 

Few contemporary writers can speak with such authority or possess as hard-hitting and politically astute voice as Cleaver – a voice capable of dissecting the embedded and pervasive nature of racism in American society and the personal and institutional contradictions and distortions that are its consequence.  

 

As Senator Obama struggles to negotiate a path across the complicated and dangerous racial terrain of American society, seeking black support but refusing to be defined as a black candidate, Soul on Ice provides little comfort either him or his supporters.   

 

Race Writing: Soul on Ice Forty Years On

Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1968.

 

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