It was immensely difficult sifting through the homophobia and sexism in Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice that obscure his profound observations about the dynamics of blackness and masculinity. That Cleaver equated the dismantling of racism with the assertion of manhood bothers me deeply and raises critical questions concerning the legacy of the Black Panther Party. His unabashed confession in the opening pages of the memoir—“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”—sends chills down my spine (33). Women are categorically objectified as disposable tools that allow him to achieve self-revelation and fulfillment. I object to Cleaver’s arguments that place the redemption of black manhood at the forefront of anti-racist struggles in ways that neglect or hurt women of color.
But nor can I dismiss the racialized anguish and frustration from which his behavior springs. If Cleaver’s insights into the black American male psyche are challenging to take, it is likely because they cut so acutely to our darkest fears and emotions. Cleaver explains black men’s attraction to white women with searing language uncomfortable to hear: “His motivation is often of such a bloody, hateful, bitter, and malignant nature that whites would really be hard-pressed to find it flattering” (36). However, Cleaver proceeds to justify his conclusions with sharp commentary about internalized racism, subordination, and white-dictated norms for beauty. Moreover, his thoughts toward the end of memoir suggest a personal transformation from misogynistic rapist to movement activist whose prison inflections had freed his consciousness from the grip of white supremacy. His letters to Beverly Axelrod display an incredible amount of admiration and respect for her as an individual. What conveys even more hope is his passionate message to all black women, on behalf of black men. Cleaver acknowledges the wrongs committed by black males bent on (re)claiming manhood, whose sense of self-worth had been destroyed by four hundred years of living in an overwhelming racist society. But now that this reality has been illuminated, “It is to be pondered and realized in the heart, for the heel of the white man’s boot is our point of departure, our point of Resolve and Return—the bloodstained pivot of our future” (237). A kinder interpretation sees Cleaver offering hope that with black men coming to understand the terms of their own oppression, they will also recognize the perverted roots of their affection for white women and begin to appreciate the black women in their lives.
I also find Cleaver’s optimistic reflections on multiracial solidarity remarkably perceptive. He writes approvingly of the 1960s generation of rebellious white youth: “There is in America today a generation of white youth worthy of a black man’s respect…It was certainly strange to find myself…commanded by the heart to applaud and acknowledge respect for these young whites” (107). But if even Cleaver—so intensely scarred by the pervasive racism he sees—anticipated at the time reconciliation between black and white, why did the left remain so fragmented between white and activists of color? The development of the white New Left, with the Students for Democratic Society and the Port Huron Statement, unfolded almost independently of the Third World Liberation Front and other people of color movements on the West Coast. Cleaver’s hopes for racial solidarity as a Black Panther leader hence leaves significant questions unanswered about movement-building, the left, and the times.