The Curtains Drawn
A Review of Soul on
by Eldridge Cleaver
Eldridge Cleaver was a founding member of
the Black Panther Party; he even ran for president in 1968
through the Peace and Freedom Party. But that same year
Cleaver was injured in a scuffle between the Panthers and
the Oakland Police, and had to flee to Algeria to avoid
arrest. Cleaver later moved to France and Cuba and returned
to the U.S. in 1975.
Eldridge Cleaver, convict and black activist, wrote Soul on
Ice, his memoir to illustrate his view of America’s black
population prior to and during the 1960s. America, the
staunch supporter of liberty, yet the vehement condoner of
slavery, had its paradox hurled at its face. The nation
awoke to grim reality—America’s innards, the basis of 200
years of political action, were being ripped to shreds.
Realizing that the nation was on the highroad to political
equality, Cleaver plunged into a reverie of self-discovery.
At first, he loathed the white man, showing his hatred by
raping white women because he felt compelled to avenge his
black sisters raped by white slaveholders. Then, he joined
the Black Muslims, who followed Elijah Muhammad and his
racist gospels. However, the revolutionary zeal of the white
youth snared at him, and he was soon arm in arm with Malcolm
X and his acceptance of white civil rights supporters.
Revealing America’s racist innards inside its façade of
equality and fraternity, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice communicates
the militant and disgusted mindset of black power supporters.
Cleaver first grew aware of his status as a Black American
at San Quentin prison. He instantly hated the white
oppressors and America’s elevated slavery. Resenting “how
the white man…used the black woman” in the days of slavery,
Cleaver rapes a white girl, spitting on the white man’s
laws, and reaping pleasure from “defiling his
women.”1 He repudiates the notion that black men
find white women attractive; rather, the white supremacy
drills its idea of beauty into the black man simply by its
omnipresence. From their youth, blacks were forced “to see
the white woman as more beautiful and desirable than his own
black woman.”2 Thus, the rape was a rebellion—a
way to get back at the overlords. Cleaver’s fellow black
convicts feel the same way about white women and would do
the same thing. This vehement anger and resentment turns
slowly to Cleaver’s loneliness. With passionate rhetoric,
Cleaver longs for a woman’s company to feel warm and radiant
once more, and Beverly Axelrod, his lawyer, fills that need.
They fall in love, and correspond. Cleaver believes this is
unusual: the convict does not “hold on [to] the ideals and
sentiments of civilization,” because all society “shows the
convict its ass” and expects him to “kiss it.”3
Although it was strange for a convict to fall in love with
such a mindset, the fact that he feels this love towards his
lawyer makes the situation astonishing. No matter how
bizarre the relationship, Cleaver claims that she was the
beacon that pulled him out of dark, slow death.
Cleaver dives into a passionate recalling of “the Christ”,
the man who taught him to be tolerant of other races. “The
Christ,” whose actual name was Lovdjieff, refused to grade
Eldridge Cleaver’s paper because it was racist, and forced
him to entertain the thought of unity with the white race.
The next few pages follow Eldridge Cleaver through his day
at Folsom prison, where the librarian refuses to give him
books about sex or controversial issues. Eldridge Cleaver
comments on the Watts revolution, and expresses the pride of
several of the black prisoners: “Watts was a place of
shame,” but blacks soon exclaimed, “I’m from Watts,
Baby!”4 The uprising at Watts had made the blacks
proud because they saw a usurpation of the American social
The black people were an ignorant bunch. Cleaver claims that
in the 1960s, most of them were afraid of General Motor, and
in the dark as to how to get their share of money. Most
blacks “have no bank accounts, only bills to
pay.”5 The poverty of the black people limit them
from rising to any kind of economic power level that might
influence politics. The police also subdue blacks as well.
As the armed “guardians of the social order,” they are the
only serious threat to the black population’s march for
freedom. Cleaver states that there is a great sense of
property amongst Americans as seen through the soldier in
Vietnam is only following orders like a mindless toy, like
he belongs to someone else. It’s this property mindset that
keeps the black people in constant humiliation—they have
Cleaver sums up the rest of his memoir with passionate
letters to Miss Beverly Axelrod, his lawyer, and an analysis
of sexuality in society’s classes. The “Omnipotent
Administrators” prefer mind over body: “he is markedly
effeminate and delicate by reason of his explicit
repudiation …of his body.”6 These men are of the
elite, and their women, the “Ultrafeminine,” abdicate their
domestic functions to become, in contrast to weak elite men,
more delicate. Ultrafemininity bathes in the envy of the
women of the lower classes. The Ultrafeminine reject the
domestic apparatus of the female hemisphere, and thrust it
onto the women of the lower classes: the Amazons. The
Amazons envy the Ultrafeminines. They are attracted to the
power embodied in the elite man because he is the mind,
while the “Supermasculine” Menial, men of the lower classes,
are the body. Power, the primeval envy of the Amazon,
attracts her to elite men, but “she is also attracted to the
body of the Supermasculine Menial,” for physical
strength.7 Thus she is lost between two worlds.
Cleaver explains that men and women of the elite and lower
classes are opposing sides of a Primeval sphere, which for
the reasons of strength and power—physical and mental—pull
one toward the other.
In harsh, unforgiving tones, using key events of the Sixties
as examples, Cleaver hurls accusations at the white race and
reveals the mindset of many Black Power activists of the
Sixties. Muhammad Ali vs. Floyd Patterson, the confrontation
between the rebels and the “Uncle Toms,” rocked America’s
foundations. Ali “was the first ‘free’ black champion ever
to confront” the “Uncle Toms,” black suppressors of the
Negroes. Consisting of movie and sports celebrities, Uncle
Toms cooled the revolutionary masses down in the name of the
white overlords, promising extensive reforms and quoting any
minute civil rights bill. The Uncle Toms were the white
man’s slave: Floyd Patterson “reflected a desire to force
the Negro …back in his ‘place.’”8 When Muhammad
Ali knocked Patterson out, the older generation received a
concussion to its head. America was a land of paradoxes with
no common ground in between. The differences therefore had
to be kept separate and the ugly sides to the land of
freedom had to be buried. This odd paradox existed because
of the notion of white superiority. In order to justify
slavery and segregation, the white man “elaborated a complex
and pervasive myth which at one time classified the black
man as subhuman beasts of burden.”9 With the
guiding star of the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution of the United States, both forged by white men,
he believed justice was bestowed upon all; the white
received the privileges since they possessed the intellect
clearly seen on the plantations, and the black received what
the pea-brained, good-for-nothing slave justly deserved in
white eyes. On the plantation, it was easy to differentiate
the black and the white; the white did the thinking and gave
the orders, the black did the work. This practice created
the myth of white man’s superior intelligence.
Eldridge Cleaver hates the capitalist system, U.S.
imperialism and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The New
Left, as the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Leaders
claim to be a part of, wants a peaceful world. They claim
that America is a horrible power bent on doing whatever is
necessary to achieve its own ends. Cleaver thinks that
America has reached a fork in the road, one leading to the
left, the other to the right. The road “to the left is the
way of reconciliation,…the dismantling of all economic
relations based upon the exploitation of man by man,” and
the road on the right is “refusal to submit to the universal
demand for national liberation, economic justice, peace, and
popular sovereignty.”10 Thus, the Civil Rights
Movement erupted into a mass protest of U.S. foreign policy
under Lyndon B. Johnson. Cleaver saw that America had to
make a choice between totalitarianism under the New Right,
preserving present policies, or democracy under the New Left.
The notion of property in the United States struck the Negro
a deep blow in his heart. The Black Muslims raised the cry
“WE MUST HAVE SOME LAND! SOME LAND OF OUR OWN OR
ELSE!”11 Land differentiated the white man from
the black even more strikingly at this elevated form of
slavery. Most blacks were poor so they could not afford
property. They were still considered dependent upon the
welfare and kind hearts of the whites. They wanted freedom
from slavery. They wanted equal opportunity and equal
representation in the government, same as the whites. Second
class status psychologically devastated a lot of blacks.
Eldridge Cleaver takes James Baldwin as an example: he
“completely rejecte[d] [his] African heritage…considere[d]
the loss irrevocable, and refuse[d] to look again in that
direction.” Baldwin is forever “pointed toward his adopted
fatherland, Europe.”12 Some blacks, envious of
the whites, rejected their own culture with disgust and
those who could, moved to—in Baldwin’s case—Europe. Cleaver
mentions envy in society as seen through the upper class
women, who indulge in homosexuality because they find their
men too weak and who envy the Amazon for her physically
strong men. The Omnipresent Administrator, the upper class
men, who envy the Super Masculine Menial’s—lower class
men’s—strong body. The Amazon, the lower class women, who
long to be the Ultrafeminine, since she is the embodiment of
beauty in society. Cleaver claims that in society these two
“sets of competing images”: one of “masculinity…based on the
Body [and] … the Mind,” and the other of “…femininity…based
on the weak, helpless UltraFemininity [and]…on the strong,
self-reliant attributes of the Amazon” are constantly
battling for victory in American culture.13
Cleaver wrote his book, Soul on Ice, during the 1960s. The
entire United States was aflame with Civil Rights activists
and protestors of the U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam.
Cleaver accurately portrays that the black people were
ignorant of the stock markets and were at the complete mercy
of the bankers, and government taxes. Aman Sharif, a
historian and a playwright, praises the author for his
beautiful prose, and admits to the occurrence of the social
events cited in the book. America saw the intervention in
Vietnamese Affairs. America saw the emergence of the New
Left. The Black Panther’s didn’t accept “no” for an answer
and fought for their rights. The entire black population was
aflame with the need for justice, and saw an icon in
Muhammad Ali and his fight against the Uncle Tom, Floyd
Patterson. The Uncle Toms of the day were the people who
espoused peace and prosperity and cooled down the discontent
black masses with reassuring words. They were the white
people’s tools to keep the Negro down from the point of
rebellion. White people during the era saw that their
ancestors were barbarians; they slaughtered natives as if
they were rabbits or chickens. This view took its toll on
the white youth, and they became more adamant in their
demand for civil rights. The brainwashed older white
generation failed to understand the new militancy in the new
white youth, and it hated them. The book was remarkably
accurate in portraying these mindsets and events. The
sixties saw the uprising of a series of civil rights
protests. Martin Luther King Jr., led the Montgomery bus
boycotts, and assembled the marches in Birmingham; the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took part
in the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins. Malcolm X raged
against civil injustices, and his assassination removed from
the world the only fragile link in the Black Muslim order.
The Muslims under Elijah Muhammad and their racist doctrines
lost influence slowly in the light of Malcolm X’s peaceful
approach. The Black Panthers, often alluded to, grew
militant and teamed up with the SNCC to espouse police
confrontations and black revolution. The Black Panthers
attacked the gun control laws of California with mass
protests, claiming that blacks had the right to use violence
as a means for defense. SNCC’s leader, Stokely Carmichael,
insisted that white supporters of the Black Power Movement
be ostracized form the black supporters. But the Panthers
wouldn’t hear it, and they pushed for a racial integration
of all new-age revolutionists. The two bodies split. The
Panther’s leaders—Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey
Newton—all eventually relinquished their positions in the
party. The FBI had gotten deep inside the party and stirred
unrest. The party eventually weakened and ceased to be a
major political force. Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice alludes to
several of these key events in the Black Power Movement’s
history. There are also references to Malcolm X’s death, and
to Elijah’s rise. The problem with Eldridge Cleaver’s book
is that some of the letters it contains are written slightly
before the rise of the Black Panther Party and thereby
doesn’t cover the events associated with it; however, their
ideas can be seen.
Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, beautiful memoirs portraying
the militant mindset of the Black Panther Party, employs a
clear and poignant style to convey the revolutionary
atmosphere of the 1960s. Though the memoirs cover one man’s
ideas and reflections, they also quote influential events
and authors of the Sixties. Cleaver’s ideas led him to
attain one of the leadership posts of the Black Panthers.
review by Ankan Sinha
- Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: New
York, 1968, 33.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 28.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 39.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 47.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 163.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 210.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 219.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 118.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 101.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 145.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 163.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 129.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 131.
- Cleaver, Eldridge 219.