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Here Cleaver unites the militant black resistance movement in the United States

with the currents of world revolution in a way which may come as a shock

to many white Americans of liberal persuasion and spiritual good-will.



Books by Eldridge Cleaver


Soul on Ice Post-Prison Writings and Speeches  / Target Zero; A Life in Writing  / Conversation with Eldridge Cleaver


Being Black / Education and Revolution / Eldridge Cleaver  / Eldridge Cleaver Is Free


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Maxwell Geismar's "Introduction" 

to the 1968 Edition of Soul on Ice


This book, written in prison by a young black American (or Afro-American), is one of the discoveries of the 1960s. In a literary epoch marked by a prevailing mediocrity of expression, a lack of substantial new talent, a kind of spiritual slough after the great wave of American writing from the I 920s to the 1940s, Eldridge Cleaver's is one of the distinctive new literary voices to be heard. It reminds me of the great days of the past. It has echoes of Richard Wright's Native Son, just as its true moral affinity is with one of the few other fine books of our period, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and as it represents in American terms the only comparable approach to the writings of Frantz Fanon.

In a curious way Cleaver's book has definite parallels with Fanon's Black Skin White Masks. In both books the central problem is of identification as a black soul which has been "colonized"-more subtly perhaps in the United States for some three hundred years, but perhaps even more pervasively-by an oppressive white society that projects its brief, narrow vision of life as eternal truth. Eldridge Cleaver very fittingly opens these Letters from Prison with the section called "On Becoming" in 1954, when he was eighteen years old. 

The Supreme Court had just outlawed segregation; he was in Folsom Prison, California, on a marijuana charge; he would be sent back to prison again for what he describes as rape-on-principle. There is a kind of adolescent innocence--the innocence of genius--in these early letters, just as later there is savage irony and a profound deadpan humor about the white man's civilization in the twentieth-century United States.

Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing, and I include in this statement both the formal sociologists and those contemporary fictionists who have mainly abandoned this province of literature for the cultivation of the cult of sensibility. (I am aware also of what may be considered excessive praise in this introduction; in that case I can only beg the reader to stop reading me and start directly with Cleaver.) 

As in Malcolm X's case, here is an "outside" critic who takes pleasure in dissecting the deepest and most cherished notions of our personal and social behavior; and it takes a certain amount of courage and a "willed objectivity" to read him. He rakes our favorite prejudices with the savage claws of his prose until our wounds are bare, our psyche is exposed, and we must either fight back or laugh with him for the service he has done us. For the "souls of black folk," in W. E. B. Du Bois' phrase, are the best mirror in which to see the white American self in mid-twentieth century.

It takes a certain boldness on Cleaver's part, also, to open this collection of essays with the section not merely on rape but on the whole profound relationship of black men and white women. There is a secret kind of sexual mysticism in this writer which adds depth and tone to his social commentary; this is a highly literary and imaginative mind surveying the salient aspects of our common life. 

There follow the Four Vignettes--on Watts, on the Muslims, on Catholicism and Thomas Merton, and on the heroic prison teacher called Lovdjieff. Here we begin to feel the reach and depth of Eldridge Cleaver's mind on emotional and philosophical issues as well as historical and social ones--and yes, "heroic," a note barely sounded in contemporary fiction, is not inappropriate for certain parts of this deeply revolutionary collection of essays.

After a series of religious experiences in prison, the young Cleaver became a Muslim convert, then a Muslim preacher of extraordinary eloquence and conviction, and then a firm follower of Malcolm X. Through this process he regained his previously alienated and splintered self-image as a child of the California black ghetto; and from this point began the remarkable process of self-analysis, self-education and self-expression described in the pages of this book. 

The essay called "Initial Reactions on the Assassination of Malcolm X," written in 1965, is a document of prime importance for an understanding of the outcast black American soul today; it illuminates all the long hot summers of rioting, violence, and "senseless" destruction.

Here Cleaver unites the militant black resistance movement in the United States with the currents of world revolution in a way which may come as a shock to many white Americans of liberal persuasion and spiritual good-will.

Yet it is so, and the sooner we try to understand it the better, and Eldridge Cleaver can help us in this process. "We shall have our manhood. We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it"--and some parts of the American earth have already been leveled by this prophetic spirit of wrath--and human dignity. 

But it is the part of the book called "Blood of the Beast," and such pieces as "The White Race and Its Heroes," that I find of primary importance, and of the greatest literary value. Describing himself as an "Ofay Watcher," Cleaver describes this historical period and this American culture in terms of the most astringent accuracy, the most ruthless irony, and the most insistent truthfulness. He reminds us of all the simple verities that decades of Cold War distortion and hypocrisy have almost wiped from our historical record--our historical consciousness.

The book is a handsome account of those years in the early sixties when the Civil Rights campaign stirred up a national psyche that had been unnaturally comatose, slothful, and evasive since the McCarthyite trauma. There is an atmosphere of turbulence in these essays, moving from the advent of the Beats and Jack Kerouac's On The Road to LeRoi Jones' revolutionary verses and then back to the Abolitionists (so scorned and despised by the Southern revisionist historians of the modern epoch), to Harriet Beecher Stowe and to that famous Fourth of July peroration for the slave race by Frederick Douglass in 1852.

In the concluding part of this book it seems that Eldridge Cleaver has reached his own spiritual convalescence, his healed spirit (no longer racist or narrowly nationalist), and his mature power as a writer--and how those pages do sparkle! The essay "Lazarus, Come Forth," on Negro celebrities and on boxing as the virility symbol of the American masses, and on Muhammad Ali in particular, is a beauty. Here Cleaver begins to touch on all aspects of American culture with a sure touch and a clear vision. 

"Notes on a Native Son" is the best analysis of James Baldwin's literary career I have read; and while Cleaver calmly says things that no white critic could really dare to say, there is not a trace of petty artistic jealousy or self-vanity in his discussion--such as that, for example, which marked Baldwin's own repudiation of his former mentor, Richard Wright. 

The essay called "Rallying Round the Flag" gives us the plain, hard, truthful Afro-American view of the Vietnam war which Martin Luther King, just lately, has corroborated--it is in fact the world view of our aberrant national behavior in southeast Asia. But just as this volume opens on the theme of love, just as Eldridge Cleaver never misses the sexual core of every social (or racial) phenomenon, so it closes on it.

There are touching and illuminating letters to the California civil-rights lawyer Beverly Axelrod, who, awed by Cleaver's talent as all of us were who first encountered it several years ago, succeeded in obtaining his release from Folsom Prison after nine years. There is the section of the book called "The Primeval Mitosis," close to a kind of Laurentian sexual mysticism again, which bodies forth such engaging social types as the Supermasculine Menial and the Ultrafeminine Doll: the sexual-social myth Cleaver has invented for the second-class black male (all body, no brain) and the pure white Southern lady, say, languishing and swooning her days away. These are the exotic myths and fabricated legends of a racial caste system embodied in a hypocritical class society. These are the satiric fantasies hovering around something which might be called the "essential miscegenation" as the missing key, the un-thinkable solution to the American race problem.

I had forgotten to mention the wonderfully ironic descriptions of the Twist as the social symptom of the new age of dawning racial equality. Here, as with the Beatles and Rock n' Roll, when Eldridge Cleaver moves into the area of mass entertainment in the United States, he is as close as he ever comes to an open laughter at the white man's antics; just as in the concluding apostrophe from the Black Eunuch to the Black Queen--to the fertile black womb of all history--he reminds us how civilization has always mocked human gaiety. M.G..

Harrison, New York

June 1967

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Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, formed in the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, remains one of the most controversial movements of the 20th-century. Founded by the charismatic Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the party sounded a defiant cry for an end to the institutionalized subjugation of African Americans. The Black Panther newspaper was founded to articulate the party's message and artist Emory Douglas became the paper's art director and later the party's Minister of Culture.Publisher Rizzoli

Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and action. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.Wikipedia

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). —Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 18 May 2012




Home   Eldridge Cleaver Table

Related files: Cleaver Bio   Retrospective on Soul on Ice By Sharif   Cleaver Speaks to Skip Gates   Tearing the Goats Flesh  F  ire Last Time James Baldwin   Notes of a Native Son  

 Sermons & Blues  Fire Last Time   Ishmael Reed's Preface Maxwell Geismar's "Introduction"    Black Panther Platform & Program   Daniel Berrigan on Cleaver  The Du Bois-Malcolm-King