MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Eldridge Cleaver: the fervent thawing of a soul on ice

PHILIP SYKES March 1 1969
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Eldridge Cleaver: the fervent thawing of a soul on ice

PHILIP SYKES March 1 1969

Eldridge Cleaver: the fervent thawing of a soul on ice

MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

BOOKS

IN THE VALUE SYSTEM of the protest generation, Eldridge Cleaver has a lot going for him. He is black and revolutionary. He is on the run from the police. He was a youthful celebrant of "grass" and is a redeemed rapist who so far has spent half his adult life in California jails. A man who has so conspicuously paid his dues can be forgiven for being over 30. The concomitant of heroic standing with the New Left is a bête noir image. The middle-class world asso ciates Cleaver with crime, extremism, rowdy dissent. It sees him only in the context of his Black Panthers, their leather jackets and their guns. Cleaver challenges both these stereo types with a book of essays, Soul on Ice, currently climbing the U.S. best seller lists. The title suggests at once the black prisoner, frozen out of life for years in a womanless cell, and the black culture, withdrawn for centuries from its place in history. Cleaver, at 34, has an immense past. In the ghetto he practised rape as "an insurrectionary act." This con tributed to a breakdown in Folsom Prison when "I started to write. To save myself." He experienced a shock

of self-knowledge when a guard hu miliated him for hanging a pinup of a white girl in his cell and, years later, developed a general theory of sexual psychology in the American race crisis. He was successively an atheist, a Muslim, a follower of Malcolm X. Finally, he was his own man - an unclassifiable black revolu tionist, a vigorous and talented cul tural critic, a sexual mystic reminis cent of D. H. Lawrence, and a poet. The Soul on Ice essays, all written in prison, have fresh perception and four-letter candor, audacity and style, a healing touch of humor. From Cleaver's "inside" viewpoint the black revolution is not just burn ing ghettos and battles with cops; it is also an unseen force in the dancehalls and the pop songs and at the ringside of championship fights. And his -view of the sexual tensions between the races - an uncharted no-man's-land somewhere between Marx and Freud --would appear fanciful were it not so closely related to his experience: the rapes, the pinup humiliation, conversations with jailmates ("I don't want nothing black but a Cadillac," said one), sessions with a psychiatrist who wouldn't even discuss racial attitudes. Cleaver defines an American racial caste system. The functions of the mind are performed by white men (Omnipotent Administrators) and the functions of the body by black men (Supermasculine Menials). Having abdicated the body, the Administrator becomes effeminate, yet still needs to appear masculine; so he demands from his woman an image that is Ultrafeminine. She manages this by relinquishing her domestic functions to the black woman, who becomes subfeminine or Amazon. Because the Ultrafeminine personifies society's of ficial standard of beauty, the Menial develops an "obsessive yearning and lust" for sexual contact with her. For her part, the Ultrafeminine, who is haunted by fears of frigidity, sees in the Menial her true "psychic bride groom." It is clearly a frustrating situation for all; or, at least, it was. Cleaver suggests that help has already come from the nine robed justices of the Supreme Court and Chubby Checker.

The court's school desegregation rul ing, he argues, gave the black Menials and Amazons an impetus to assert a mind of their own. The arrival of Elvis Presley and the Twist released the Administrators and Ultrafeminines from their bodily prisons~ "The whites have had to turn to the blacks for a clue on how to swing with the Body, while the blacks have had to turn to the whites for the secret of the Mind. It was Chubby Checker's mission, bearing the Twist as good news, to teach the whites, whom history had taught to forget, how to shake their asses again." In all but his angriest polemic pas sages, Cleaver is tough, yet goodhumored and human. He appears re lentless in the revolutionary purpose he declares. Yet he abandoned the racism of the Black Muslims. He speaks generously of the new temper of white American youth. There is hope in that. Hope, too, in the quality of this work. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver (McGraw-Hill hardcover, $7.95; Ram parts paperback, $1.95). PHILIP SYKES