Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver dies Fiery literary voice of 1960s movement mesmerized audiences


Eldridge Cleaver, whose searing prison memoir "Soul on Ice" and leadership in the Black Panther Party made him a symbol of black rebellion in the turbulent 1960s, died yesterday in Pomona, Calif., at the age of 62.

At the request of his family, a spokeswoman for the Pomona Valley Hospital Center, Leslie Porras, declined to provide the cause of death or the reason Cleaver was in the hospital.

In the black leather coat and beret the Panthers wore as a uniform, Cleaver was a tall, bearded, articulate figure who mesmerized his radical audiences with his fierce energy, intellect and often bitter humor.

"You're either part of the problem or part of the solution," he challenged, in one of the slogans that became a byword of the era.

He became even more of a symbol when he jumped bail after a shootout between Black Panthers and the police and fled into exile in Cuba and Algeria, adding the causes of communism and Third World liberation to his repertoire.

But after he returned to the United States in 1975, Cleaver metamorphosed variously into a born-again Christian, a Moonie, a Mormon, a crack cocaine addict, a designer of men's trousers and even, finally, a Republican.

When "Soul on Ice" was published in 1968 it had a tremendous impact on an intellectual community radicalized by the civil rights movement, urban riots, the war in Vietnam and campus rebellions. It was a wild, divisive time in America, and Cleaver's memoir from Folsom prison, where he was serving a sentence for rape, was hailed as a voice of black rage in a white-ruled world.

"Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing," Maxwell Geisnar wrote in the introduction to the McGraw-Hill book, adding:

"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-20th century."

First printed in Ramparts, the quintessential radical magazine of the '60s, Cleaver's essays are angry, sometimes bitingly funny, often obsessed with sexuality. He traced the development of his political thought through his prison readings of the works of Thomas Paine, Marx, Lenin, James Baldwin and, above all, Malcolm X.

"I have, so to speak, washed my hands in the blood of the martyr Malcolm X," Cleaver wrote after the assassination of the one-time Nation of Islam leader who had moved away from separatism, "whose retreat from the precipice of madness created new room for others to turn about in, and I am caught up in that tiny space, attempting a maneuver of my own."

But it was a difficult space to reach. In one of the book's most gripping passages, he writes:

"I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto -- in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of the day -- and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately, willfully, methodically -- though looking back I see that I was in a frantic, wild and completely abandoned frame of mind.

"Rape was an insurrectionary act," he wrote. "It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women -- and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge."

There was little doubt, he went on, citing a LeRoi Jones poem of the time which expressed similar rage, "that if I had not been apprehended I would have slit some white throats." But he was caught, and after he returned to prison, Cleaver wrote:

"I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray -- astray not so much from the white man's law as from being human, civilized -- for I could not approve the act of rape. Even though I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified.

"That is why I started to write. To save myself."

From 'Soul on Ice'

"In Soledad state prison, I fell in with a group of young blacks, who, like myself, were in vociferous rebellion against what we perceived as a continuation of slavery on a higher plane.

"We cursed everything American -- including baseball and hotdogs."

"When white freedom riders were brutalized along with blacks, a sigh of relief went up from the black masses, because the blacks knew that white blood is the coin of freedom in a land where for 400 years black blood has been shed unremarked and with impunity."

"Self-hatred takes many forms; sometimes it can be detected by no one ethnic self-hate is even more difficult to detect. The self-hatred often takes the bizarre form of a racial death wish."

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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